What I’ve Been Doing – Episode 2

So, more in the ‘what have you been up to?’ segment…

The past couple of summers, I’ve been to a couple of major RC (radio-controlled model) car racing events around Europe, so I’ve been doing a little extra travel as a side-job and reporting for a site called RCRacing.TV

Basically this entails taking pictures, talking to the top drivers at each event, doing various race reports and posting the reports and pictures online. Pretty geeky, yeah, and very few people realize how seriously many of these racers take their racing – most of them pay hundreds of (pounds, Euros, whatever) to drive or fly hundreds of (miles, kilometers) across the continent to race in front of very few spectators for no other glory than to try to do better than they did last year. Those that haven’t paid their way are there because there are companies that actually sponsor them (with money!) to do well and promote their products – the top guys are actually paid a salary to race toy cars for a living – and if the sponsored guys don’t do well, they know their sponsors might be tempted to look elsewhere when their contract is finished. So there’s a lot of pressure involved and it usually means some good racing.

This year I was asked to try to do race commentary, which, if you’ve watched motorsports before, consists of some guy who thinks he’s a know-it-all about the race and the drivers (‘some guy’ being me in this case) and babbling over the practice, qualifying heats and races. It was my first time doing it at the European Championships for electric buggy (there being two classes: 2WD and 4wD), then the following week I was scheduled to announce for the Championships for the much larger and cosmically faster 1/8th scale on-road class.

Here’s the race edit of just the fastest 10 guys (the A Final) in the 2WD electric buggy, with my commentary (the other voice you’ll hear is my friend and colleague during the trip, Mat):

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What I’ve Been Doing – Episode 1

So, for the last year, the biggest new thing I’ve been doing is doing a lot of tabletop wargaming.

I used to do a bit of tabletop gaming before I left Texas but because I played with just a couple of friends it never grew into anything bigger. The game we played at the time was Heavy Gear, which hss a futuristic sci-fi setting and you move around small piloted robots kind of like Gundam or Robotech, but they are much smaller than the robots in those settings. I really enjoyed playing these games and it was just very casual with terrain (buildings, walls, etc.) made from old boxes and styrofoam packing materials. I still have all the models I built and painted from that time. Good stuff!

Last May or June one of the guys I play Dungeons & Dragons (and other tabletop roleplaying games) with said he started collected some of the newer Warhammer 40K models, so I checked them out and bought an army from a guy I work with. Fast forward a couple of months and my fellow D&D player, the guy from work and two more guys from work are playing regular games, every week or two, at mine, in the dining room. Fast forward a couple more months and I’ve got a second army, the original guy from work has a second army and we’re playing pretty much every week, sometimes a couple times a week!

So it’s been pretty busy on this front, which is why this is my first ‘episode’ of what I’ve been up to for the last year or so. So busy, in fact, that we’ve got a website that I maintain, plus a Youtube channel that has all of our latest tabletop battles. There’s also a big online photo album of most of my models I’ve painted up for my armies, and another online album of pictures taken during the battles (once we moved to video battle reports the flow of pictures has slowed down quite a bit).

To give you an idea of the painting I’ve been doing (which takes up a LOT more time than actually playing the games), here’s a few of my favorite models I’ve done:

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Destroying the World

So here’s a couple of cool things, especially if you think the human race will be eliminated sometime this year…

First up is a simulation of what would happen if a rogue star happened to fly through the solar system: http://janus.astro.umd.edu/orbits/nbdy/rstar.html

You can change around the various numbers to see how close the star will come to the sun and Earth – just keep in mind the blue dot is the Earth! That we’re on. Just think of that when you see it whizzing off to destinations unknown…without a sun, without any daylight and with mass chaos everywhere.

For more fun and a bit more graphics bang, check out Universe Sandbox (http://universesandbox.com/), which lets you toss in asteroids, planets and more. You can even play around with scenarios like seeing how close that asteroid in 2010 came…which is very scary to watch!

So have a go at destroying humanity 🙂

How to watch the Star Wars movies: IV, V, II, III, VI

Great blog post from a full-on Star Wars geek about the best way to watch the Star Wars movies. Notice Episode I is ‘missing’. Here’s why: Red Letter Media’s 70-minute review of Episode I

Anyway, check out this blog post to see why this is the best and most entertaining way to watch the Star Wars saga, and read all the way to the end to read about a real test with someone who’d never watched the Star Wars movies before.

Narrowed down camera choices

The Canon S95 was announced this week, it should be released in the next few weeks. The only thing ‘missing’ from it, when compared to other top-level compact cameras, is a pivoting LCD methinks.

I haven’t seen it advertised anywhere yet but it might be a little more than the other prosumer compacts that are out there.  So to compare:

The Canon S95 has HD video, 28-105mm, non-pivot screen, HDR mode, about £400??

The Samsung EX1 has no HD video, 24-72mm, a pivoting screen, about £300

The Panasonic LX5 has HD video, 24-90mm, non-pivot screen, about £360

Everything else is about the same: RAW shooting, full manual control, loads of scenes, face recognition, tons of aspect ratios and all that.

I think for me the EX1 for me is out because of no HD video, so then I guess it becomes a coin toss between the Panasonic wider angle and the Canon’s better zoom. The Panasonic is probably going to be cheaper as well…

Phone update, mini-review

I’ve had my first Android phone, the Samsung Galaxy S, for a couple of weeks now and have been poking around with it just about every day. I don’t get many calls but I’ve sent and received a bunch of texts. I’ve loaded a bunch of apps and have tried most of the ones I downloaded. I’ve customized it slightly with a couple of apps. I haven’t rooted it (that is, installed a custom operating system, similar to completely re-installing an operating system on a brand new laptop). Well…I haven’t rooted it yet.

So here’s my experiences with it, and I’ll try to compare it to using my previous phone (I would call it a semi-smartphone), the Nokia 5800, and the iPhone 2g I was using purely as an iPod for several months.

First Impression

Well, it looks like an iPhone. What can I say. The AT&T Captivate version doesn’t, it has square corners, and the US has a ton of different versions of this same exact phone – some with 4 softkeys (touch-sensitive buttons) at the bottom, some with the 1 button and 2 softkeys from the Galaxy S, different bezels and shapes and whatnot. One advantage of not having a US-spec phone is that there’s no bloatware and no Orange apps, no proprietary color branding or anything like that on my phone. It’s also not restricted or locked out at all, that I can tell. So definitely bonus points, because that’s a major reason why people ‘root’ or heavily modify their Android phones.

It’s about the same size as the iPhone iterations, and thinner, wider and taller than my old Nokia 5800, but it weighs about the same. It feels good in the hand but I got a case for it anyway just in case I drop it. The only I got is called ‘silicrylic gel’ on eBay, cost a few quid and has a good slightly rubbery texture that will help keep it in my hand or pocket, instead of dropping out of either.

The camera seems pretty good, 5 megapixels versus the 3 megapixels in my last Nokia. I’ve only taken a couple of pictures with it to test integration with other apps like Twitter and the standard Gallery app, and these work well.

I’ve only taken a few calls with the phone and have to get used to it, it’s longer than my last phone so the microphone feels like it’s miles away if you press the phone to your ear. Clarity seemed fine, but this all depends on your network, location and local conditions of course.

Texting on it is great with the Swype keyboard, one of the standard keyboards included on my version. Apparently this isn’t installed as standard with at least the AT&T version, which a friend of mine has in Chicago, and I think Swype itself is a ‘pre-release’ app, meaning that it takes some steps to get it installed, beyond simply searching for it on the Android app store.  I really like that the Android default for texting (at least on this phone) is the ‘speech bubble conversation’ that the iPhone uses, I think it works really well and makes it easy to pick up conversations hours or days later.

Connecting to WiFi is pretty good, although sometimes I’m puzzled by how the phone treats WiFi – I can see it’s turned on in the notification bar (more on that later) but I often don’t see the icon for it on the main screen, and when I’m trying to download something I’ll get a ‘no network’ message. Still trying to figure that one out.

GPS seems to work OK, although there are complaints from many (including me) about being able to get a satellite link, and there are various homebrew methods of changing satellite networks which seem to work for a while, but then you lose the signal again. Luckily I’m not going very many places out of town these days, but Samsung know about the problems and will be releasing a fix soon, along with the anticipated Android 2.2 update.  This could be a problem if you’re depending on the GPS satnav directions, but I haven’t done this much so YMMV.

Another issue people have been seeing is the ‘lag’ there is when moving around different apps, and some people have tried to correct this by installing some very geeky software enhancements which worked, but then caused problems, then it was updated and now I don’t know if it’s been ‘fixed’. For now I’m just living with the laggy times, which doesn’t happen often for me because I tend to use one app for a long time (like a podcasting app or a game or a comic book viewer) and don’t often switch around. I don’t think this is a major issue.

One thing I really really like is the Google account integration with all the Google apps I use, like Mail, Photos, Reader and more. The funny thing about this is I’ve been using Google stuff for years (I started my Gmail account during the whole invite-only beta phase in 2004)  and the week AFTER I get my phone is when the Google-Verizon net neutrality bruhaha kicked up, and now people are rapidly swinging the other way and thinking Google is, in fact, evil. At the moment I’m not worried about it, and I do have my Google Latitude app turned off (it has the ability to track you and tell anyone or just your friends where you are), but mainly to save battery life.

Speaking of battery life, it’s…well, just okay.  It’s supposedly the biggest capacity battery of all the Android phones, but the massive screen takes up loads of the charge, so if you play around with it a lot you’ll just run down the battery very quickly. You can go into your main Settings screen and see what is taking up all the battery life – 90% of it usually is the screen, so I make sure to tap the power button every time I’m done fiddling about with the phone, this turns off the screen but lets the music or whatever keep going. You can also set the brightness lower, but I just let it auto-set depending on the light conditions. On my Nokia I could let it go and go without charging it up every day, but I didn’t watch movies or play any games on it. I put the phone on charge at night, or when I get in, and take if off charge when I leave – it’ll last a whole day at work plus an extra hour or two for the drive or shopping, up to 10-12 hrs, between charges. If you use an ‘app killer’ to shut down apps that you aren’t using, you might save more battery life, but Google themselves say this is unnecessary, so I don’t do this often.

I think that’s about it for the general wrap-up, so I’ll go into the Good and Bad bits.

The Good

(the phone itself)

Just ‘feels good’ in the hand. A good weight and size.

Brilliant screen. Some people claim the dottiness bugs them but they must be looking at it through a damn microscope. I haven’t watched any movies on it yet but it’s a huge, fantastic screen.

Feels good and intuitive to use. The homescreens and swiping and everything feel natural and easy. This is a testament to the iPhone more than anything, but if you’ve so much as glanced at someone using a touchscreen phone you’ll feel right at home with this one. My Nokia 5800, on the other hand, wasn’t that great with the touchscreen, most of the time I used my fingernails to do the tapping and typing.

(the Android system)

Google app integration – this is 60% the reason I got the phone. I’ve been on Gmail, Photos, Checkout, Picasa, Reader and loads of other Google-integrated sites for years and years, and this just makes it easier.

Getting apps – very easy, don’t need to hand over payment details for free apps (like with iTunes), and using the QR codes makes it SO easy to get apps from magazines, books, websites and anything else. I’m already connected with Google Checkout (basically their version of Paypal), so buying the one app I’ve bought so far was extremely easy. Scarily easy, really.

The Bad

GPS needs to be fixed, but that’s coming, so say Samsung

The WiFi thing is annoying, I’m not sure what to make of it, but no one else seems to complain about it so it’s probably just me and my settings.

The 2.2 Android update is coming in September, this should fix several things across all Android phones apparently.

Battery life is just barely in the ‘bad’, but this is easily fixed by having a micro USB cable handy at work, so one can charge their phone if it needs it. I also have a USB cigarette lighter adapter in my car, and a travel plug adapter with USB at home, just in case.  So unless you’re backpacking without a car for a few days you shouldn’t have a real problem with battery life.

The Apps

This is going on long enough, so I’ll have to get into the apps I’ve tried and use later. Suffice it to say that I only use apps I’ve heard from word of mouth, or ‘most recommended’ blog posts online, so if you’re reading various Android blogs or Lifehacker.com you’ve probably already seen or heard about the apps I’m using. But I’ll go into those at another time.

Achievement Unlocked: Obtain Android Phone

Got the Samsung Galaxy S (aka the Captivate) this weekend 🙂

Carphone Warehouse at the White Rose mall in Leeds had them (and the Desire) in stock and I couldn’t resist. Apparently they’re one of the biggest CPW locations in the area so they get priority on limited stock items like the Desire at the moment.

I got a pretty good monthly rate, too. Basically I’m going to be paying a few quid extra per month than I was before, for the privilege of one of the hottest devices available, and after a year I can drop my contract down to a cheaper rate, and in 23 months I can upgrade again. No money up front, £30 a month, 500 minutes (which I won’t hit), unlimited texts (actually limited to 500) and 500mb data transfer/internet (the Orange version of ‘unlimited’).

Right now I have the Geek Squad insurance cover, which is quick and pretty comprehensive, but because of the cost of the phone that’s £12 a month rather than the £5 or so I was paying for my older phone. I have a couple of weeks to cancel that, so I have to decide what I’m going to do with it. I found a website that will cover me for £5.99 per month, and 12 months of cover for the price of 9, and it looks very comparable to the Geek Squad  but I need to compare them side-by-side. I think the cheaper insurance wins out though.

I’ve started playing around with the various apps already but will wait a while before rooting it, mainly I want to be sure I can restore it to its default setting if it all goes wrong.

So far I’m running a bunch of free apps and have tried a few free games.

Right now I’m running the stock music player app and it seems pretty good so far. I’ll have to see how it handles album art. For podcasts I’m using Google Listen, but I need to be on a wifi connection to get downloads or my data limit will quickly be demolished. I’ve been using Gmail and Calendar for years, so I love how the system just integrates all that into the various Google apps.

I think the first  paid app I’ll try is Tasker, which is £4 and can do things like automatically send a text to someone when I get home, change the volume settings when I get to a certain location, change the GPS/locator functions of different apps, etc.

As for the phone itself, this particular one does look a lot like the iPhone, with a single ‘hard’ button and the volume switch where they’re at, but beyond that and the Apps screens the difference grows. Multiple configurable home screens can hold constant mail, weather, traffic or Twitter updates, Google search (by voice!) is right on the main screen, it’s very configurable and I haven’t even thought about rooting it yet.

There are some good things that it borrows from the iPhone, like the way it does speech bubbles with text messages, etc., but that’s not a bad thing at all.

So, moving up from my Nokia 5800 I’m looking forward to tightly integrated things like email, calendar, Twitpic and other services, all without paying much more than I was before.

And…no more iTunes 🙂

Also in the market for a new phone!

In addition to a camera (see my last post), my Orange mobile phone contract is coming up for renewal and I’m due a free upgrade.

For the past year and a half or so I’ve been using the Nokia 5800, which has been pretty good. And when Nokia  finally allowed me to update the firmware so I could use the free Ovi mapping for driving directions (I wasnt able to use it for months, although I’d paid £50 for 3 years of use about a year and a half ago) it got even better.

But now I’m looking at Android.

I think I’ve settled on the HTC Desire, as it’s one of the free models I can upgrade to on Orange, although it’s not in stock at the moment (which is a good thing, otherwise I would have already sent in my order). It was released earlier this year so it’s one of the newest models, it’s got the same big screen, processor and RAM as the fastest and latest Android phones out now, and it’s not a damned iPhone.

The HTC Hero is also available, but it’s a year old…and it’s a year old. That’s it’s main problem 🙂 I could also get the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini, which is a smaller and less feature-intensive version of the X10, which is a £99 upgrade.

Since I don’t have the cash to just buy the latest unlocked  Android phone, I’m thinking the Desire is it! Any suggestions from anyone?

In the market for a new camera!

So my Canon A95 is dying a slow death. Too many drops, I guess.

I was really thinking about getting a nice fat superzoom camera (600mm lens and full HD recording? yes please!) because every now and then I like to get a little more serious about taking pictures – but then slip back into ‘simple mode’ – and sometimes I like to play around with the manual settings. The brand new (as in not yet released) Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100 was what had caught my eye recently.

But now I’m thinking a superzoom  will be too big for simple snapshots and possibly not techie enough for when I want to take serious photos (which isn’t that often these days and I’m happy with what I get from the A95). If I wanted to get properly into photography I’d just get a digital SLR, but that’s a minimum £600-700 investment right off the bat for a used 20D body, cheap wide angle lens and halfway decent telephoto lens.

So I’m looking at the ‘prosumer’ top-level  compact cameras, the ones designed for ‘advanced amateurs’ (ahem) and professionals or DSLR owners who don’t want the bulk of their big camera on a trip, but want much of the control of their fully-featured DSLRs.

These are the models I’m thinking of:

  • Canon G11
  • Panasonic LX5
  • Samsung EX1
  • Canon S90
  • Canon Ixus 300 HS

The S90 doesn’t do HD video but is very highly regarded by photographers, the LX5 and I think the G11 have tilt-swivel LCD screen, and they all have loads of manual controls and good megapixel counts.

If anyone has other suggestions or opinions on any of these, let me know!