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Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Lab: Canon Legria HF200

By now, if you still watch television shows, you'd probably have seen the Canon advertisements for the Legria series of camcorders. These products supposedly give a superior image quality that's as good as what you get in modern still cameras, but for a video recording device.

I had the chance to put this claim to the test recently. Based on a short experience, the results do uphold this claim. For one thing, this is a high definition (HD) camcorder, so of course the picture quality would be far better than standard definition camcorders.

But aside from the HD resolution, the colours and sharpness were as good as anything that Canon has produced, and maybe even better. Under ideal settings, like recording under bright sunlight, colours were captured as real as to the naked eye. But even in an indoor environment, lit only by fluorescent lights, images were still captured very well in terms of colours and sharpness, though of course, things were a darker shade due to less light.

The Legria camcorders can also function as still cameras, but I didn't test this out.

Startup time takes no more than 5 seconds, which is standard for consumer digital camcorders. Video (and still images) are recorded to an SDHC card. (The HF200 does not have any internal storage memory, so you must have an SDHC card.) An 8GB card should be sufficient to record a half hour's worth of video at the maximum resolution. If you're worried about the battery power running out before then, fret not. The included battery lasts for more than an hour at full charge.

(Note: the above are estimates. Your usage may vary.)

Video is captured in MTS format. This was the first time I had come across this format, so I don't know much about it. On a Mac, the free VLC player can play these MTS files natively. But if you want to play them with Quicktime, then you'd need to convert the videos to the standard MPEG-4 or Quicktime MOV format. Fortunately, you can also connect the camcorder to your Mac via the USB cable and import the videos into iMovie for editing.

(I don't have a Windows computer, so I couldn't test the Windows connectivity.)

Another thing I liked was its compact size. This is a camcorder that you could carry in a handbag easily. And with its small form factor, it would fit small hands comfortably. I don't know if Canon purposely designed the Legria for the female segment, but its design certainly seems to point that way.

One thing that I had to get used to was with the viewfinder -- or the lack of it. Almost all camcorders come with an LCD screen and a small viewfinder. The Legria HF200 has an LCD screen only. For users who record for long periods of time and are worried about power consumption, this might be a negative factor.

The LCD screen's power consumption could lead to a shorter battery life, which means shorter recording time. Of course, you can still record with the screen closed, but that would only be useful if you never need to move the camcorder, which is almost unlikely in all situations.

Personally, I've always had a good impression of Canon's digital camcorders. The picture quality was almost always on par with Sony's, but at a lower price. And this was validated by expert reviews. (Panasonic camcorders also score well in picture quality.) The Legria HF200 continues to reinforce this impression and I feel comforted by this. Definitely a worthwhile recording device to get. And with PC Show just around the corner in June, you might be able to get one with a few freebies!


Monday, May 18, 2009

The Lab: X-Mini portable speakers

Some time back, I had a chance to test the X-Mini portable speakers. But since I'm not the kind who listens to music all day every day, I didn't have a chance to really test it out until recently. And I must say that the X-Mini's small size is hugely deceiving.

The X-Mini is a small, spherical object that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. To use it, you need to flick the power switch, then twist the shell open. The centre piece, known as the "accordion", is supposedly the secret behind the X-Mini's audio quality. Apparently, it delivers a superior bass experience to amplify your enjoyment.

Using it with my iPod, the music played about as well as through the earphones, based on my non-audiophilic test. In other words, I can tell that the quality is good enough for me to enjoy my music. True audiophiles may find it wanting, though, but then, what would you expect from portable speakers?

From the manual and website, I couldn't tell if the audio that came out was in true stereo quality. Nonetheless, what came out of the speakers sounded like stereo. The music definitely sounded richer, compared to my other portable speaker, which only plays mono sound.

Such sound quality would require a lot of energy. Fortunately, you don't have to weigh yourself down with AA batteries, since the X-Mini comes with its own built-in rechargeable battery. Recharging is done through a USB connection.

A word of caution: charge the battery before using the speakers. When I used the speakers with the USB wire still plugged to my laptop, I got static after a minute of iPod playback. This bug has probably been fixed in newer versions of the X-Mini.

To find out more about this made-in-Singapore product or to browse the rest of the range, visit the X-Mini website.


Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Lab: HTC Dream (Google Android phone)

To compete with Apple's iPhone, Google produced its Android platform for smartphones. Unlike Apple, though, Google doesn't make its phones. Instead, it has made Android an open source system that can be used by 3rd party phone manufacturers. Like HTC.

The HTC Dream is a bulky, heavy black coloured smartphone that contains the Google Android goodness. Unlike the slim and sexy Apple iPhone, the Dream is a device that was clearly not designed for handbags or trouser pockets. Instead, its size and weight suggest that it's meant as a desktop alternative, i.e. something you carry in a bag.

Which is pitiful because other phone manufacturers, like Nokia, have been able to cram a full-sized, slide out QWERTY keyboard without compromising on weight. This suspiciously makes the Dream seem like a first generation device that's being beta tested on the public.

Fortunately, most of the rest of the phone is top notch. Like any good smartphone, it features a touchscreen that I found to be responsive to my fingers. There were a few times when it thought that I'd pressed another button or required a firmer push on the screen to react, but overall, I found it a pleasant experience. Though it did take me a while to realise that I could scroll by flicking my finger across the screen, instead of relying on the physical scroll ball at the bottom.

Unlike the iPhone, though, the Dream does not have any on-screen touch-based keyboard. Instead, all typing has to be done through the keyboard. You flip the phone to the side, slide the screen out, and you now have access to the keyboard. Meanwhile, the screen's display flips to landscape view automatically. Unfortunately, typing wasn't as easy as I found it to be, especially for the right hand. This is because of the navigation buttons found at the bottom/right of the phone. This bulky area hindered my right hand from typing smoothly, unlike how it was for my left hand. So right-handed people, which is more than 50% of the population: beware!

Overall, I found it quite easy to navigate the device. Application buttons were generally big enough to press comfortably, scrolling was smooth and even Web browsing was a breeze. Regarding Internet connectivity, the Dream comes with Wifi and 3G. Unfortunately, since I'm not a Singtel user and didn't know how to setup the 3G access point for my telco, I didn't have a chance to test the 3G connectivity. But Wifi connectivity was definitely hassle-free.

The Google Android system provides a seamless experience in connecting to all of your Google services. By setting up my Google Account, I now had access to Gmail, Google Calendar, and more. If I read an email in the Dream, my desktop Gmail would almost automatically be updated to reflect the message's read status. I suspect, though, that this means that there's a lot of background data transfer, so 3G users would have to keep an eye on their data usage (= higher cost = money).

I could also access the Google App Store to download programs. Of course, I only downloaded the free stuff -- to mixed results. Since these apps aren't provided by Google, my success with them was hit-and-miss.

For example, I downloaded two Twitter apps. One made it easy to send updates, but for some reason refused to show my full Twitter history. The other was a pain in typing, but was otherwise a very slick program. As the warning goes: your mileage may vary.

Another problem I had with the Dream was with Bluetooth. Bluetooth support is apparently limited only to connecting with accessories, like earphones, which is similar to the iPhone. As such, I couldn't transfer files nor sync contacts with my Mac. The latter led to another issue: my contact list was limited to what was in my SIM card and in my online Google contact list, which I don't use for privacy reasons.

The bottomline is that this is a relatively nifty phone, if you can get past three things:

  1. Bulkiness
  2. Right hand unfriendliness
  3. Bluetooth limited to connecting with accessories only
If I were to get a Dream, though, I'd wait for the next version, so that HTC can iron out the kinks.