Thursday, November 27, 2014

Alienware Area-51 Desktop & Alienware 13 Laptop debut at SITEX 2014

Alienware has brought the legendary Area-51 gaming desktop back in style, with a bold new form factor, and showcased their newest gaming laptop, the Alienware 13.

Alienware Area-51
Driven by Intel's latest six- or eight-core Haswell-E Core i7 K-series factory-overclocked processors, the Area-51 allows customers to configure the ultimate gaming machine, with options for up to:
  • triple AMD, triple NVIDIA or dual NVIDIA Titan Z graphics cards
  • 32GB Quad Channel DDR4 RAM
  • 512GB SSD with additional 4TB HDD storage
  • Killer Gigabit Ethernet
  • Wireless-AC
  • and... Windows 8.1 Pro 64-bit (Hisham asked if there were options to downgrade to Win 7. "Not at the moment", they said)
This state-of-the-art pyramid will set you back S$3999 (dual GPU) or S$4999 (NVIDIA Titan), and can scale up or down depending on configuration options.

Alienware 13
The newest laptop in the Alienware's arsenal features a design refresh that, let's be honest, responds to the community's sentiment. The sharp aerospace-inspired designs have been well-received, but the bottom line is that the chassis is still way too thick and bulky to go up against competitors. I'm happy to say that the design language has been retained, within a much slimmer, and waaay sexier chassis, measuring 1-inch thin and starting at 4.5 pounds in weight. The screen comes in FHD by default, and Alienware offers options for up to QHD resolution, and touchscreen (in case you want to play Angry Birds in glorious 4K).
In addition to this, beginning with the Alienware 13, all new Alienware products will feature a special dedicated PCI Express-based port for the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, which houses full-length, dual-height graphics cards with up to 375W of power, and provides 4 powered USB 3.0 ports for easy connection of peripherals. The Amplifier aims to give users the choice of desktop graphics card from either AMD or NVIDIA, to work alongside their Alienware laptop. Great solution for a performance boost at home, while retaining portability on the move.
The Alienware 13 begins at $1,999, and the Alienware Graphics Amplifier retails for S$418.99 (card not included I assume).

If you want to check these new products out for yourself, Alienware is at SITEX 2014, Expo Hall 5.

Tech Review: Lomography Petzval Art Lens

When asked to review the Lomography Petzval Art Lens, I quite quickly said yes, without too much thought about what would be in store for me. I've toyed (hurhur geddit) around with Lomo products before, and as a digital photographer accustomed to minimal chromatic abberations, tack-sharp images, clearly-distinguishable bokeh and other clinical perfections achievable with the single click of a button in Lightroom, even my most twisted frame of mind had trouble making me let go of the fact that I have all but lost precious control of my aperture, shutter speed, focus and ISO.

For the record I still feel comfortable with a manual SLR. But Lomography's artistic concept is quite a different ball game, oftentimes leaning heavily on the highly forgiving nature of photographic film to capture otherwise ruined shots (and celebrating said near-destruction as art).


In the past year, Lomography has turned its focus towards engaging the digital photography market, with the Micro Four-Thirds Experimental Lens Kit for mirrorless systems, the upcoming New Russar+ for L39 and M mounts, and the Petzval lens for Canon and Nikon DSLR systems. This represents a slight change, or at least deviation, in direction for them, aiming to make unique, optically idiosyncratic lenses available to digital shooters instead of drawing them back to good ol' analogue photography..

 At a focal length of 85mm (often considered the most flattering focal length for portraiture) and a maximum aperture value of f/2.2, let's be clear about one thing - the Petzval lens isn't your typical plaything from Lomography. Without the luxuries of electronic apertures, auto-focus or even focus confirmation, users in my opinion will require adequate experience in aperture management and a keen eye to lock focus optically while capturing moments. If you don't already have a full frame DSLR body, I would recommend thinking about that first before spending on this lens. APS-C cameras will result in focal lengths of 127.5mm or 136mm (Nikon/Canon respectively) and unless you somehow feel comfortable working within that range, I imagine it will be quite the nightmare to operate snappily. I also believe full-frame cameras will more effectively bring out the unique optical features of this lens. While it isn't impossible to use this lens for street photography (by which I mean un-posed pictures), it will definitely be a heck of a greater challenge to use day-to-day than the more conventional 35mm or 50mm lengths.

Aperture size is controlled by a series of old-school-looking brass plates that frame the aperture hole nicely in the center of the lens. The plates start from the lens' maximum aperture of f/2.2, then move up to the conventional value of f/2.8, through to f/16 in 1-stop increments. After you get used to operating the lens, there's something quite therapeutic about palming an aperture plate (or two, if you're awesome like that), to have options on hand without having to fish out and sort through the whole carabiner of plates everytime you wish to switch. In my sessions with the lens I've alternated between f/2.8 and f/4, and f/4 and f/5.6. As far as my limited time with the lens could show, these were ideal aperture values that brought out the best of the lens. I also had the chance to mess around with the Petzval Special Aperture Plates, which feature unusual shapes that will show up in your background's bokeh. Great for concept stuff, but perhaps not for everyday use, in my opinion.

If an image shot with the Petzval were to be immediately recognized, it would perhaps be because of its swirling, arcing bokeh patterns and soft, misty feel, which I expect would usually prove a source of anguish and despair to aforementioned digital photographers, but otherwise has a rather dreamy and artistic effect to it. This is where aperture comes into play - too wide and the bokeh smudges into a huge singular blur; too small and the bokeh closes down, minimizing the swirly effect. On sunny days, on-focus images shot at f/5.6 onwards are guaranteed to produce painfully sharp shots. Indoors where more light input is required and larger apertures are in place, the focal sweet spot becomes paper-thin and misty images are not uncommon (or it could be my unsteady hands. YMMV~).


As far as the lens itself fares, it lives up to its inclusion under the Lomography brand: a slightly unpredictable, not-always-easy-to-use lens that you'd do well to just go on a journey with, and discover a new dimension of photography with. But perhaps the golden question boils down to this: is your photographic journey worth S$998 for a large, heavy, manual lens?

Wait, how much?!
 Yep. S$2 short of a whole grand. That's the price you will pay for a Petzval. As a photographer not naturally inclined towards portraiture, this frankly isn't a lens that I would consider purchasing. I always recommend my readers to try the product in question for themselves - I am after all just a single point of view. Failing that opportunity to do so, the most telling question I would say you should ask yourself is be your natural affinity towards portraiture. As with all things analogue, the lens will make you slow down and consider the value of your shot before taking it. After all, you will be quite obviously crouching or bending, trying to get the focus right. This exercise will very likely bring about a more thought-out shooting process, slowly improving the effectiveness of your photos.

So how much is your photography worth?
View the rest of my published shots at my Facebook album.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Drive Behind Pangdemonium

When thinking about digital storage in relation to performing arts, we usually gravitate towards filmmakers and musicians, they being the ones having to record numerous drafts and snippets and footage and clips as they work towards a final piece, often in uncompressed data formats that require obscene amounts of storage capacity.

Thespians aren't the first performers that come to mind when considering the horrors of a perpetual digital storage crisis. As an art form that is brought to the audience in real life and real time, the world of theatre, traditionally at least, requires far less storage than their counterparts. It's hard to say in this day and age that there is zero requirement for storage in theatre, where sound effects and soundtracks often support shows, and video embellishments and interactivity are increasingly commonplace and complex.

Local theatre company Pangdemonium was founded in 2009 by actor Adrian Pang and wife Tracie. Following the success of "Fat Pig" and "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice", the latest play to undergo Pangdemonium's treatment is "Frozen". No, something much darker than a princess with ice-making powers.

I had the opportunity to learn more from the man himself, Adrian, about how technology has changed us as a society, and how it has affected him and the company.

First of all Adrian, what would you say Pangdemonium stands for?
Pangdemonium stands for theatre that is not only entertaining, but also enriching, enlightening, and empowering; we believe in theatre that is aspirational and inspirational, passionate and compassionate, and impacts on audiences viscerally, intellectually, emotionally.

As you see it, is technology today stripping away what it means to be human, or does it in fact help reveal more of the human condition?
Technology certainly is keeping people apart, especially when people are together. You only have to observe friends or families in public, for proof that people have forgotten how to truly be together. Even in the theatre or the cinema, many individuals feel the compulsion to disengage from what they have paid to experience, in order to check up on what is happening on the outside. Which, by the way, is bloody rude, not only to the actors on stage, but also to the other members of the audience. If someone ever does so when I'm on stage I WILL MAKE SURE THEY STOP.

In fact your latest play Frozen deals very much with the human condition. What do you ultimately want your viewers to take home from that?
Three things:
  1. that we all have a responsibility as a community to protect all children from abuse in all its forms;
  2. crime and punishment, justice and retribution, redemption and forgiveness - forget everything you think you know, because Frozen will test you and make you re-evaluate your beliefs, and even get into heated arguments about them; 
  3. there does not need to be singing and dancing, fancy costumes and moving sets, for it to be a great night at the theatre.
Hand on heart, how much time do you spend on your gadgets? Are they a big part of your life? And what can’t you live without?I am a bit of a tech moron, so my gadget needs are very basic. I probably would have trouble with an electric toothbrush. But having said that, I cannot live without my laptop. In fact, I have a love-hate affair with it.

That said, you work with Western Digital for your storage needs for Pangdemonium; what do you use and can you tell us how does it fit into your workflow?
I am constantly working on some kind of writing - whether it's composing copy for publicity collateral, scripting, content for production programmes, etc - which takes up a lot of time, because there's always updating, editing and re-writing to do. I actually secretly love it! And having WD for my storage needs has been a real blessing and huge help to me, because I know that WD always has my back: speed, volume, security, reliability - for a borderline OCD writer like me, it's a perfect writing companion!

Pangdemonium uses a mix of portable and desktop hard disk drives from Western Digital, with the My Cloud EX4 storage server at the heart of their operations. As the company's central drive, it provides secure remote data access to employees wherever they are, as long as they have an Internet connection, and automatically backs up all computers and devices. This increased accessibility to the latest and most updated information has given the team more time to prepare for each production, instead of constantly having to housekeep their shared drive, and added assurance of data safety, with its backup measures.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Adobe Creative Cloud 2014: Keeping up to date without breaking your bank

This is part of my on-going review series for Adobe Creative Cloud 2014, of which I was given a complimentary one-year subscription.

When Adobe CC was first announced last year, many weren't sure where to place their opinions. A good many (such as I, initially) made calculations to see the difference between Creative Suite and Creative Cloud, and quite quickly realised that you the S$792 you will fork out over a year for a complete Adobe CC subscription will never compare to the thousands of dollars you would have to spend on any previous CS Master Collection. And perhaps why that wasn't so immediately apparent was because, and I'm sure many of my readers would already know this in... more than one way, Adobe products are amongst the most pirated software in the world. Adobe hopes to mitigate that with the availability of Creative Cloud.

I won't claim that Creative Cloud can or will shut piracy down. Neither does Adobe, and quite prudently so. That would have been disappointingly naive. Instead, much like music and Spotify, or videos and YouTube, it feels like Adobe is looking to make their very desirable offerings more affordable through technologies that weren't available before, with value adds to the greater ecosystem that will complete the user experience. In doing so, they hope, as do I, that more users will appreciate the benefits of paying a reasonable monthly price to have access to the latest updates and features. There will I'm sure be those who have built enough of a personal ecosystem around their Creative Suite apps that they will feel no impetus at all to move to the Creative Cloud, just because they've been doing fine the last 5 years. Obvious legalities aside, it's hard to blame them, given Adobe's pre-CC pricing model.

I should qualify at this point, to conclude the pre-amble, that I don't think Adobe's previous prices were unreasonable. Premium, perhaps, but given the almost unfathomable amount of features and possiblities built in to Photoshop, to name just their most popular product, they are qualified to ask that sort of money for it. What it was though, was simply unreachable, and adding to that the fact that most users probably use no more than the most common 5-10% of its capabilities - advanced users perhaps stretching that figure to 50% - it is near impossible to justify paying in excess of a thousand dollars for the program.

One year and lots of aggressive marketing later, the Creative Cloud apps have undergone major refreshes, both inwardly and outwardly, as they move into their second year of service with Creative Cloud 2014. One of the greatest advantages of CC is its update cycle. I've had my subscription for no more than 3 months, and in this time I have already been bugged 3-4 times by the CC manager app to download and install updates. Along with that there is also the rather obvious matter of choice. Anytime you decide you don't require a service anymore, you'll be able to drop it within 30 days of your decision, depending on the plan you selected, keeping sunk costs to a minimum. What's not to like?

As a photographer who also dabbles in abit of video and audio production from time to time, I primarily use Lightroom and Photoshop, along with Premiere Pro and Audition once in awhile. As my main tool, Lightroom can today still be purchased and function on its own as a One-Time License, for which I'm grateful. Subscribing to Lightroom through CC, however, unlocks Lightroom Mobile on the iPad, allowing you to sort your photos and do rudimentary edits (exposure, contrast, color/B&W, etc) on the go. This is great for the mid level professionals who have back to back schedules but don't necessarily have a team yet to hand the processing and editing to, post-shoot. CC subscriptions also allows users to use companion mobile apps like Photoshop Mix and Adobe Sketch with Photoshop CC, or Adobe Premiere Clip with Premiere Pro CC, powerful and accurate tools to help you capture those creative brain farts wherever you are.

At this point I need to shout about Adobe's incredible subscription plan for photographers. Keeping in mind that a single app subscription, ie. an ala carte selection, is S$26/month, the Photographers plan gives you the latest versions of Lightroom, Lightroom Mobile, Photoshop CC and Photoshop Mix - basically the complete set of desktop and mobile tools available from Adobe that a photographer will need to function - for S$13/month. If you haven't already done the math, that is half the price of 1 app for 2 apps and their mobile companions. Even if you find zero use and interest for Lightroom, you would have to be frighteningly stupid not to take up this deal.

CC apps, I have noticed, also boot up faster than its predecessors, probably due to tightened code. This is surely a welcome change for efficiency maniacs (come on, say it loud and proud) or those like me who want to execute an idea snappily, before the inspired processes or creativity slips our minds. Yes, it's a thing. It happens. No, you don't have to be old and forgetful to experience this.

Because Photoshop is to me a secondary tool that I only use for more complicated operations like image stitching, image stacking or HDR blending, I haven't had much opportunity to explore the great new features of Photoshop CC 2014, like automatic searches and downloads of missing fonts from the Typekit library, new blur motion effects and focus masking.

There will be more in-depth articles on that and the other apps I use, so stay tuned to this space!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

LifeTrak R450 Activity Tracker

The advent of smart watches have been followed by a slow but large wave of fitness trackers such as FitBit and the JawBone UP (these two being the more premium and well-known models). This in turn was more quickly followed up with by combination devices that monitor your physical activity alongside remote smartphone notifications, conveniently delivering to you the latest in your digital and online activities. The LifeTrak Brite R450 is fitness tracking company LifeTrak USA's latest flagship product, first launched towards the end of September and now available here in Singapore.


In addition to basic activity tracking, the R450 boasts some pretty impressive (-sounding, at least) features:

  • ECG-accurate heartrate monitoring that allows for more personalized calorie-burn information
  • light exposure levels, particularly the blue wavelength, which is said to affect mood, energy levels, and quality of rest
  • nap/sleep management, waking you up at an optimal time when you are not in deep sleep so that you are properly refreshed
  • enhanced step filtering and dynamic distance calibration (basically no more pedometer cheating like you did by rattling your Digimon)
The R450 also helps keep a check on your fitness goals (totally need this...), and lets you know when you have fallen behind or accomplished your goals, to keep you on trak (teehee). It syncs with the LifeTrak smartphone app to save longer term data for deeper insights. It supports 8 types of smartphone notifications, including IM, SMS, reminders and notifications from major apps.

At this point the R450 is compatible with iOS devices (click link to product page in first paragraph for detailed product compatibility), but the website as well as the distributor here confirms that the company is hard at work to expand compatibility to Android devices by the end of the year. Data can only be fed to the LifeTrak app right now, but "development is underway to get it integrated with Apple Health Kit and the Android equivalent". Which is tres bien. The watch uses a coin cell battery, avoiding the need to charge every other day (press release claims up to 6 months, which I think is quite impressive considering the stuff it purports to do), but neither is it self-recharging, so half-yearly battery replacements will be necessary if you choose to get this watch.

Lastly, the R450 is waterproof up to 30m, so basically having it with you 24/7, in the shower and while you swim, will be no issue. The only advice given is to try as much as possible to avoid pressing the device's buttons while underwater.

The LifeTrak Brite R450 is now available for S$179 at Axtro Sports, Challenger, Courts and Perfect Watch at Sim Lim Square. As I type, a test unit is on its way over, so stay tuned for the full review!


Friday, October 24, 2014

Let your ears be loved with Sennheiser Urbanite

Following a successful run (I think, certainly looks so at the surface but I haven't been following that closely) with their Momentum series of stylish headphones, Sennheiser looks to capture the increasingly discerning youth market (read: #richkidsofsingapore) by following up with the Urbanite range of street-friendly headphones.

As with the Momentum series, the series consists of two main models - an on-ear version and an over-ear version. Each model then has removable remote control cables (1.2m) suited to either Apple or Android devices. These cables will also be available separately, shortly after the range's availability date of 28 October 2014, along with a universal version with slider-controlled volume (ie. analog, not electronic).

Unlike the Momentum series, which is predominantly dressed in leather, the Urbanite range sports denim and canvas fabrics, complemented with highly flexible and durable stainless steel and aluminum parts to travel with you all day. And what's a fashion-oriented line of products without a range of colors? The Urbanite XL (top) and Urbanite (below) don't exactly come in bright, eye-shredding shades, but its options will quite easily coordinate with your wardrobe (this coming from a self-professed fashion dunce, so if you can't even manage to complement light and dark against each other properly then just get yourself the black model and be done with it). It must be mentioned that the earpads are made of velvety material, which makes for a very comfortable rest, but absorbs sweat like a sponge. I foresee this may will cause some awkward moments in the longer run.

Ok, first impressions of the audio quality. I used to shy away from products claiming "extra bass", because no matter how marketing spins it, the sound almost always ends up muddier than a Muk after it's had a dip in the Ganges. I was very pleased, therefore, to note that Sennheiser has not sacrificed its legacy of pristine audio in favor of style. While I unfortunately neglected to check if the drivers for both products were different, the XL/over-ear version definitely provided accurate, tight bass lines, whether you are listening to defined beats in techno or rock, or wider, further-reaching rumbles and pulses in musicals and classical music. Mids are richly defined, and highs rarely, if ever, turn exceedingly sharp. With a smaller circumference, the Urbanite/on-ear version pipied out a more concentrated projection of sound. For me, this seemed to bring about a more packed-in bass that didn't resonate as well as that of the XL. Similarly, while its high-fidelity was quite apparent, the mids and bass felt like commuters jostling onto an already crowded train platform during peak hour, unable to reach their full aural potential. Fellow bloggers who attended the event with me opined otherwise though, so as I always recommend to anyone who asks me about audio, that's my opinion, but try it out for yourself to be sure. I can give you my point of view but I can never hear on your behalf.

The Urbanite (on-ear) will retail for S$269, and the Urbanite XL (over-ear) will retail for S$339. They will be available from 28 October 2014 onwards at the Sennheiser Concept Store at Marina Square (try it out here!) and authorised retailers.

With the range's focus on street style, Sennheiser in Singapore has partnered with "a local independent, multi-label company", SUP Clothing at Haji Lane (I mean, where else right?), to launch the line, by identifying and engaging with fashion-forward people, who will receive the chance to win fully styled outfits along with Urbanite headphones.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Tech Review: Logitech X300 and X100 Mobile Wireless Speakers

When I requested to try out the Logitech X300 portable speakers, and got myself the X100 speakers to go along with it as well, part of me wondered if I had dug myself a hole.

Logitech is best known for its practical, nothing fancy (apart from color options lol), value-for-money products. But as far as recollective comparisons go, I mostly had higher-end portable speakers or small speaker set ups as reference, such as the Creative Roar. Would I be able to make a fair comparison across two different product tiers?

In a strange way, therefore, I eagerly unboxed the product when I received it and tested it out.

I would like to say I did my worst to it in testing, but the truth is that there is nothing really to test beyond its intended function. True to its principles, the portable Bluetooth speaker was... a portable Bluetooth speaker. It's functions were made clear on the product itself, that it would do nothing more, but nothing less that what it promised either. There weren't any fancy USB ports for charging smartphones, or alarm systems, or custom docks, or other fairy dust. And that was alright in its own way, because I hardly needed to read the instruction manual to get myself set up and running with the device.

Let's get to the crux of it, and I'll tell it like it is. There is no bass. Perhaps some indication of a bass beat, but nothing more to lend conventional foundation to your music. But being straightforward as it is, I imagine Logitech must have weight the options with cost effectiveness as a priority.

 Now what would does the X300 offer? Mainly, stereo speakers that are angled to maximize stereo effect and reach. For all the quality boasted (rightfully) by Creative and Bose and its peers, stereo separation is something hardly addressed, and very often a weakness of portable speakers priced in excess of S$300. In a party or picnic setting, when you mainly want to have some background music running to add to the mood, I would argue that reach would be way more of a priority than tight, noticeable bass response. And that is what the X300 aims to deliver. Nothing more, but nothing less. It must be said that crackling was observed, but minimum and only at levels so high that one either would find uncomfortable for background music, or ignore because the party was louder anyway.

The X100 is even more utilitarian, sporting only a single large speaker to blare out your music. I used the included cord to fasten the speaker to a bicycle on a long-distance ride with my friends, and had the Best of Queen accompany us for the ride. Again, it was apparent that the speaker's job was done without the need for clear bass. The cord fastened very tightly, to the point where I had some trouble removing it at the end of the ride, but I would really much rather it got stuck than unfastened itself halfway while I was going down a path at 15km/h. Although knock on wood, if that really happened, both the X300 and X100 are encased in rubber finishes that I believe will provide a degree of protection from unintentional shocks.

At the end of the day, the Logitech X300 (S$99) and the Logitech X100 (S$69) mobile wireless speakers present a very viable no-frills option for those of you out there who aren't fussy about the quality of their music on-the-go, and just want a simple device to spice up your outings and gatherings. They say you get what you pay for, and with Logitech, every cent is worth its money.

No more, no less.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Movie Review: Muppets Most Wanted

So earlier this week I was invited to the media preview screening of Muppets Most Wanted, the second Muppets movie following...... The Muppets.

Picking right where the previous movie left off, Kermit and gang have pulled off a successful comeback, and they want to keep that momentum going. Tour manager Dominic Badguy ("It's pronounced Badgie... it's French... meaning... good guy."), played by the ever-talented Ricky Gervais, enters the scene with perfect timing to offer to make that a reality, with... of course... a darker secret behind him.

What struck me about this film was its irreverence. But it's easy to be irreverent. Just systematically go against the grain, offend plenty of people along the way and not give a flying hockey puck about said people. Muppets Most Wanted, however, manages to display their nonchalance to Hollywood and their own tall legacy in a coy, teasing and completely clean way. In other words, good old humor that demands more effort in both writing and execution.

Ty Burrell, better known as the hapless father Phil Dunphy in arguably the best sitcom on American TV today, Modern Family, and Tina Fey, from SNL and sometimes known as Sarah Palin's comic double, both take on accented roles in this movie, Ty Burrell playing a French Interpol inspector and Tina Fey playing a Russian prison guard. I personally think this is a risky task to undertake. Maintaining a fake accent consistently for a full-length feature film isn't an easy task, and efforts can all too easily fall to derisive calls of "trying too hard". Ty and Tina manage to pull this off decently though, turning their respective imitation dials to 11.

If you're looking for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and enjoy being the only one in an entire theatre to go "HAHA" because that means only you were smart enough to catch a less obvious reference (no come on, don't giggle like you don't like it, you know you've just one-upped like 149 other people), Muppets Most Wanted is showing in cinemas islandwide. Go catch it this weekend!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

SingTel Group and Samsung cooperate to accelerate mobile data growth in the region

On the sidelines of the Galaxy S5 launch in Singapore today, the SingTel Group - comprising SingTel (Singapore), Optus (Australia), AIS (Thailand), Airtel (India, Africa), Globe Telecom (Philippines) and Telkomsel (Indonesia) - and Samsung today announced 4 joint initiatives to encourage the growth of mobile data in the region, benefiting over 500 million customers in all.

Retail Collaboration Programme
This allows select Samsung Stores to provide the respective local carrier's sign-up services, providing a simpler retail experience for customers. Currently available in Philippines and soon to be available for India and Indonesia.

Those who visited the Samsung pop-up store (well, sort of) outside Ngee Ann City some time ago may remember this in action. It certainly does drive sign-ups of customers who are already considering getting a Samsung smartphone with SingTel, but for walk-ins, at least in Singapore, I think this won't be so effective, since we're so used to getting everything done at a telco outlet anyway.

Direct Carrier Billing with Samsung Apps
Singapore already offers this and it will be rolled out to Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia. Customers can buy Samsung apps and content by either charging to their mobile bills or deducting from their prepaid balances.

This was most interesting to me. Alistair Johnston, CMO of Telkomsel (above left), revealed in the Q&A of the press conference that Direct Carrier Billing is an attractive alternative to payment by credit cards, which do not enjoy as high a penetration rate in emerging markets. Pratthana Leelapanang, SVP for Digital Service of AIS (above right), noted that NFC technology is being used in Thailand as a direct means of payment for public transport (ie, using your smartphone as an EZ-Link card) as well as cashless contactless payment for about 300 major establishments such as fast-food chains, and this can be linked to Direct Carrier Billing.

Mobile App Development Programme
This is just basically calling on start-ups around the region to bring their development ideas to the SingTel Group and Samsung, and if they like it they will accelerate their development and open access to the half a billion mobile customers around the region. Selected developers will have their apps marketing in Singapore, Australia, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia.

Nothing new, and I'm no expert on this, but dang those figures look real good to me.

Direct Access to Applications
Gonna have to be honest here - this is a fancy term for pre-loaded apps by the telco, albeit "carefully customised to reflect local requirements and content", starting with the Galaxy S5. Will be available to Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia.

Take what you will of it.

All in all, this sounds like a promising push, with SingTel flexing its international muscles by bringing so many telcos in on it. Perhaps there'll be a progress update on the morning of the Galaxy S6 launch.

If you aren't already thinking about that SingTel... time to start planning? :)

After the press conference the media were invited down to witness the commencement of sales for the Galaxy S5. First 10 customers in the queue were rewarded with an extra (quite good) goodie bag.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Movie Review: Need for Speed (2014)

 I've always loved driving, and I always tell people that while I enjoy gaming, the only form of gaming I think I stand any chance in is the racing genre. And to most console racers, the Need for Speed series of games represent an important part of gaming history. Thanks to Walt Disney Studios and Bates&CHI I had the privilege of catching the media preview of the movie based on the game franchise. 

As Justin rightly pointed out, it mustn't be easy to create a story out of a game franchise that hardly ever has a proper story to any of its titles. Not that that's a problem for the games, since just about everyone who'd buy it just want to hit the gas pedal and preferably knock some cars off the road. But given the franchise's 20 year history, there has to still be quite alot to live up to.

Without spoiling the plot for you, what struck me about the movie was that it quite nicely embodied the theme that its games were centred around - the concept of a perhaps not-always-apparent, but nevertheless deep-seated rivalry, whether between cops or between racers. The cops in the movie did get in the way of the illegal races, but they are pretty normal cars that "top out at 130", as mentioned by one of the film's characters. That's pretty crap considering that they were up against 6 supercars, from Koenigsegg, Lamborghini, Spano, Saleen, Bugatti and McLaren. The chief rivalry that drove (hurhur) the plot was one between two racers, and if you watch the movie, you will see that there's a pretty solid reason for it.

The movie was great in building up the adrenalin of races, beginning with a race amongst muscle cars and ending with a flat-out supercar showdown. With quite a number of surprises thrown in, it was an enjoyable 2 hours relishing the sights and sounds of the best of automotive technology today, capturing with some exhilarating camera work.

Need for Speed opens March 13th in Singapore's theatres.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Tech Review: Creative Sound Blaster Roar Portable Bluetooth Wireless Speaker

TL;DR: it's good, go get it, mai tu liao.

Given that audio reproduction revolves chiefly around the induced movement of air, when audio products come in small sizes, they have a great tendency to leave much to be desired of its quality. Smaller drivers are only able to move so much air, and that usually makes for a weak, unbalanced or worse, forced output. From time to time, however, certain products find the means to go against the odds of physics to create highly admirable sound within a compact package. I consider myself immensely fortunate to be able to own a number of such products, and the latest addition to the family is the freshly released Creative Sound Blaster Roar.

When this portable Bluetooth speaker was first announced at CES 2014, I noticed news of it but never bothered to read any article that featured it. All of that came back to me when I received Creative's eDM on the then upcoming IT Show, announcing they would be debuting their latest star product, one that has won international recognition, with a 41% introductory discount. A quick search revealed a fresh article on Hardware Zone reporting on their closed-door preview of the device, which I have perused extensively in the lead-up to my purchase. The writers at Hardware Zone take after my heart in their standards for aural excellence, so if they've waxed lyrical about it, that's theoretical reason enough for me to go for it. Check the article out for more technical and feature-centric points on the product.

By the way, having seen the mad sell-outs on the first two days of the IT Show, I went down at noon when the show opened on Saturday and literally brisk-walked to the Creative booth to listen to the device for a grand 15 seconds before zipping to the payment counter to pick up a unit. I thought that kiasuism had gotten the best of me, and was just starting to feel foolish when I found out later that units for the day sold out at 2pm.

BAZINGA. More pre-order information below.

Ok, review. With the product lying down, Creative logo facing towards you, there are two mid/high speakers projecting stereo sound towards you, bass projecting upwards because obviously that's where the least obstruction of air should be, and radiating panels on either side to push the sound outwards evenly. This is something that's really apparent with the device - it's of course easy to tell where the sound is coming from or projecting towards, but wherever you place the Roar, you get a great sense that its sound reaches outwards to fill the space, which I think is well beyond the expectations of many smaller sounds systems, to say nothing of portable wireless speakers.

Will you get tight and defined 10Hz bass beats? No. Is the bass tangible? Heck yes, and I think it's something that will continue to impress me for a long while. As for the main pair of speakers, it's got the good ol' signature warmth of Creative speakers, without getting muddy and in fact being impressively crisp, that I so love. I have yet to hear it crackle, and I don't want to make that happen because 1) I would like to retain my precious hearing please and 2) I don't want the police paying me a visit.

Having put everything together in such a compact case, I think the choice for hard metal grills are highly sensible, if not pure genius (which sensibility seems to be as rare as these days). Metal grills will provide due protection to the many speakers and driving elements inside, while ensuring that air is able to move freely.

Here's the thing about the Roar button though. It was made to amplify, enhance and spatially widen the sound so that it still cuts through in larger gatherings and spaces, and that will of course contribute to an accelerated loss in battery life. But there is a marked difference in quality between Roar and normal modes, so great that I would much rather turn the Roar on and reduce the volume, rather than go with the normal mode at a higher volume. Even better audio quality, enhanced for longer reach, which can be enjoyed at lower volume - why would you not take that? I certainly would. Every time. In other words, I would have been happy without an option to un-Roar the speaker.

Quick note: it is mentioned in the manual that plugging the power supply in would further enhance the quality of the Roar mode, and that it is recommended to keep the power supply plugged and running while on Roar mode. While I would gladly endorse the latter statement, I noticed no significant difference between battery-powered Roar, and DC-powered Roar.

Another difference I was pleased to find a lack of is the audio quality between direct playback and Bluetooth playback. I've loaded 320kbps MP3s as well as WAV files into the card, and playing the same music from my phone through Bluetooth, I found only the same sparkling audio quality from it. Be warned: Your mileage may vary on this point.

The sheer multitude of features were also a huge factor in influencing my purchase. Offering not only playback from a MicroSD card but read/write via USB, audio output via USB in which your sound experience can be further tweaked with downloadable software, the ability to answer calls and record either currently streaming music or voice via in-built microphone into the card, and good Lord why has no one thought of this, a USB DC-Out to supply extra juice to your mobile device streaming music to the speaker, this portable speaker has all you need and more, with fantastic audio quality to top it all off.

While I definitely do find the Alarm mode useful (calling-for-attention alarm, not wake-up-at-7 alarm) I don't think I'll be using it anytime soon. Ditto for Life-Saver modes, which play loud noises randomly to keep you awake, although I'm way more appreciative of this feature, since it can help with midnight oil burners who don't want to wake up the next day to find that their report consists of 6 words and a pool of saliva on the table, and more importantly long drives in other countries.

An unfortunate problem of the speaker, even though it technically has stereo output, is the lack of effective separation between Left and Right audio channels. This is due to the fact that the speakers are so close to each other, but I gather you don't really need such details when you are groovin' away at the party. This will be more of a pain point to the discerning audiophiles who just want to bring their music along with them to enjoy. I would have thought that it would be a simple matter of angling the speakers away from each other to pull the audio channels apart, but perhaps that would be detrimental to the effective projection of the sound, which is obviously key in this product and while I well won't argue with.

The speaker is also rather hefty, at more than 1kg. It's kinda like the Alienware of the portable speaker world - while it can definitely be moved around and transported quite freely, you will find the bulk and weight to be the cause of slight annoyances if you're hand-carrying the speaker, even with the carrying case that they're currently giving away free with purchases of the product.

The Recommended Retail Price of the Sound Blaster Roar is S$338. At time of writing, you may still pre-order your unit at S$199, to be delivered from 8 April 2014 onwards, though this extended IT Show promotion will end 10 March 2014. As echoed by many others, it offers tremendous value for money even at its standard price, and at $199 you are getting practically glorious quality and features for pretty much a third of the market price for such products. If you are in the market for a portable audio solution of any kind, you need to have this product in your consideration list.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Tech Review: Sony XBA-H3 Hybrid Balanced Armature Headphones

 One of the natural drawbacks of using earphones is that with 8mm circular drivers or balanced armature drivers, however many, the sound that is piped through, regardless of accuracy, remains rather lateral and flat. You don't enjoy the same experience you get with headphones of larger driver sizes, which get much closer to reproducing the natural sound-stage of the recording - in other words, the placement of instruments within an ensemble, as well as the unique reverberations of the individual locations where the recording took place, whether a stadium with a live audience, a concert hall, a high-ceilinged cathedral or a small studio.

After the boom, and to a certain extent consumerization (lookin' at you Sony, you market spoiler you) of Balanced Armature products in the market, manufacturers of personal audio products have recently turned to exploring hybrid earphones, in which the two dominant technologies of personal audio, dynamic drivers and balanced armature drivers, are combined within a single product to provide the best of both worlds. To this end, Sony has produced the XBA-H series of products.

The XBA-H3 is the highest grade of the series, with one large 16mm dynamic driver to provide the bass, and two balanced armature drivers: a full-range driver, and a tweeter to further drive higher frequencies. Other products in the series include the XBA-H2, with a 13.5mm dynamic driver and a full range BA driver, and the XBA-H1, with a 9mm dynamic driver and a full range BA driver.
In short, the H3s (I'm just gonna call them that cos it's really quite tiring to keep typing XBA-H3s) completely caught me by surprise with its huge soundstage. It scored impressively on clarity, but having tested the XBAs before I already expected it to. To so tangibly feel the breadth and depth of the recording though, is this product's greatest success.

The dynamic driver is tuned to handle the bass, and it does so tightly and impactfully, cutting through the music most delightfully. I've learnt early on that if you were to press dynamic drivers in to your ears such that a seal is created by the diameter of the earbuds, you actually can get very good fidelity from most earphones, including Apple's iBuds. Given that doing so all the time is not at all a comfortable experience, plus the fact that you look like you are trying to block out your own music and therefore quite mad, that is an impractical solution. I would theorize with admittedly no knowledge of this particular field that a lack of free-flowing air and an overly muffled sound prevented manufacturers from simply sealing the sound in and channeling it through silicon earbuds, much like what the H3 does, but with the addition of balanced armature drivers to cover the higher frequencies, plus the innovative addition of an air vent at the back of the housing, this has been all but smartly eliminated.

Continuing their aforementioned legacy of balanced armature drivers, highs are cleanly delivered, and rarely sound sharp to the ear. It took some mad crashing of cymbals in a drum solo to make me start to wince, but it was generally tolerable and should be extra good news to most other users because 1) I am extra sensitive to higher frequencies, and 2) I listen to my music at generally louder volumes.

Now the catch. Yes. Yes there is, much as it pains me to say it.

There is a disappointing lack of mids in the tuning. Funnily enough, the two pieces of music I found completely acceptable were by the Chick Corea Super Trio and Diana Krall, where mids came through in full glorious force, so I suppose if you are a jazz person, mai tu liao, as they say. I did however, consistently notice hints of crackling at mids-intensive portions of the songs, which again may not happen if you listen to your songs at a lower volume. I was doing about 70-75% on the iPhone audio scale. I know I know. But with the other songs I sampled, spanning across Pink Floyd, Asian Kung-Fu Generation, Disney, Immortal, Les Miserables and more, there was a resounding absence of mids, which contribute to the soul of the music - the oomph, excitement, richness and warmth. Many a times this made the music sound like cold and clinical renditions.

Driving the earphones are no problem - there wasn't a significant difference between listening from my audio amp, and listening from the iPhone directly, except for the source amplitude.

Here are a list of artistes and songs that I tried out, and my impression of the output from the H3s:
  • Chick Corea Super Trio: sparkling, lively rendering, crackling at piano solos, nearly peaking at drum solo cymbal crashes.
  • Diana Krall: near-perfect rendition. Both ensemble and solo parts clear as day.
  • Asian Kung-Fu Generation (Japanese rock): great Rock-like EQ, but lack of mids = lack of excitement.
  • Disney classics: every individual instrumental and vocal part in Disney orchestras and ensembles, which are HUGE (think Under the Sea and Be Our Guest), can be clearly heard. You can quite clearly imagine where each section would be sitting if you were in the conductor's spot.
  • Pink Floyd: The stereo bounce in Us and Them was aurgasmic, to say the least. The high reverb in Money's emotive, soaring solo is generously reproduced, although the solo itself felt thin with the lack of mids. Similarly for the scatting in The Great Gig in the Sky, one of the most emotional lengths of senseless yelling anyone's ever done, there was little impact in the output.
  • Immortal (black metal): no mids, but extreme metal relies a fair bit on the high mids, so the tweeter sort of saved it by reproducing the gritty crunch of the highly distorted electric guitars.
  • Muse (live rock recording in a stadium): no sense of excitement, and this from a mids-heavy live recording.
  • Les Miserables: Nicely reproduced, almost captivating. I do play this quite high on the volume.
  • Casiopeia (Japanese fusion jazz): anti-climax at electric guitar solo.
  • Daft Punk - Random Access Memories: Great tight bass, immersive environment.

Quick note about ergonomics before I conclude: it is quite cumbersome handling. The audio unit itself is already so blocky, you definitely aren't gonna be sleeping on your side with them on. The wires are rather disobedient, especially the top loop around your ear, although I will say it does a mostly good job of keeping itself out of tangles. ... when it doesn't get caught up with the rubber portion of the top loop.

The success of the H3s, therefore, are highly dependent on how sound engineers tune their final mix to be burnt on to the disc, which should not be the case. Even as someone who understands that I have a highly personal taste in musical output, I can't really imagine alot of people appreciating the lack of mids, unless perhaps clarity is a personal preference for you. For audio engineers and other professionals whose jobs require on audio monitoring, the earphones don't have the flattest tuning, but depending on your personal audio consumption tastes and needs at work, this pair of earphones can serve a good balance between both. They retail for a recommended price of S$438, and can be found at Sony stores and retailers around the island. Go to Sony's Singapore flagship store at Wisma Atria to try them out.