Digital Cameras

In May I gave a talk for LUV about the basics of creating video on Linux. As part of the research for that I investigated which cameras were good for such use. I determined that 720p was a good enough resolution, as nothing that does 1080p was affordable and 1080i is lower quality. One thing to note is that 854*480 and 850*480 are both common resolutions for mobile phones and either of those resolutions can be scaled up to full screen on a 1920*1080 monitor without looking too blocky. So it seems that anything that’s at least 850*480 will be adequate by today’s standards. Of course as Dell is selling a 27 inch monitor that can do 2560*1440 resolution for a mere $899 in the near future 720p will be the minimum that’s usable.

Cheap Digital Video Cameras

The cameras I suggested at the time of my talk (based on what was on offer in Melbourne stores) were the Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3 which has 4*optical zoom for $148 from Dick Smith [1] and the Olympus MJU 5010 which has 5*optical zoom camera for $168 (which is now $128) from Dick Smith [2]. Both of them are compact cameras that do 720p video. They are fairly cheap cameras but at the time I couldn’t find anything on offer that had significantly better specs for video without being unreasonably expensive (more than $600).

Update: In the comments Chris Samuel pointed out that Kogan has a FullHD digital video camera for $289 [13]. That’s a very tempting offer.

More Expensive Digital Video Cameras

Teds Cameras has a good range of Digital Video Cameras (including wearable cameras, and cameras that are designed to be attached to a helmet, surfboard, or car) [3]. These are specifically designed as video cameras rather than having the video function be an afterthought.

Ted sells the Sony Handycam HDR-CX110 which does 1080p video, 3MP photos, and 25* optical zoom for $450 [4].

They also sell the pistol-style Panasonic HX-WA10 which is waterproof to 3M, does 1080p video, 11MP pictures, and 5* optical zoom for $500 [5].

For my use I can’t justify the extra expense of the digital video cameras (as opposed to digital cameras that can take video), I don’t think that they offer enough. So a cheap $128 Olympus MJU 5010 is what I will probably get if I buy a device for making video. I can afford to replace a $128 camera in a year or two but a device that costs $500 or more needs to last a bit longer. I expect that in a year or two I will be able to buy something that does 1080p for $200.

Features to look for in Great Digital Cameras

The other option when buying a camera is to buy something that is designed to be a great camera. It seems that RAW file capture [6] is a requirement for good photography. RAW files don’t just contain uncompressed data (which is what I previously thought) but they have raw sensor data which may not even be in a cartesian grid. There is some processing of the data that can be best done with raw sensor data (which may be in a hexagonal array) and which can’t be done properly once it’s been converted to a cartesian array of pixels. Image Magick can convert RAW files to JPEG or TIFF. I haven’t yet investigated the options on Linux for processing a RAW file in any way other than just generating a JPEG. A client has several TB of RAW files and has found Image Magick to be suitable for converting them so it should do.

The next issue is the F number [7]. A brief summary of the F number is that it determines the inverse-square of the amount of light that gets to the CCD which determines the possible shutter speed. For example a camera set to F1 would have a 4* faster shutter speed than a camera set to F2. The F rating of a camera (or lens for interchangeable lens cameras) is a range on many good cameras (or lenses for detachable lens cameras), if you want to take long exposure shots then you increase the F number proportionally. A casual scan of some web sites indicates that anything less than F3 is good, approaching F1 is excellent, and less than F1 is rare. But you don’t want to only use low F numbers, having a higher F number gives a larger Depth of Field, that means that the distance between the nearest and furthest objects that appear to be in focus is greater. So increasing the F number and using a flash can result in more things being in focus than using a low F number without a flash.

Another important issue is the focal length, cheap cameras are advertised as having a certain “optical zoom” which apparently isn’t quite how things work. The magnification apparently varies depending on the distance to the object. Expensive cameras/lenses are specified with the range of focal lengths which can be used to calculate the possible magnification. According to DPReview.com Optical zoom = maximum focal length / minimum focal length, so a 28mm-280mm lens would be “10* optical zoom” [8]. Finally it seems to be that the specified focal length of cameras is usually in “35mm” equivalent. So a lens described as “280mm” won’t be 28cm long, it will be some fraction of that based on the size of the CCD as a proportion of the 35mm film standard (which is 36*24mm for the image/CCD size).

Update: In the comments Aigars Mahinovs said: Don’t bother too much with the zoom. The view of a normal person is equivalent to 50mm lens (in 35mm film equivalent). Anything under 24mm is for landscapes and buildings – it is for sights where you would actually have to move your head to take in the view. Zooms are rarely useful. Something in 85-100mm range is perfectly fine to capture a bird or a person some distance away or some interesting piece of landscape, but anything more and you are in the range of silly stuff for capturing portraits of football players from the stands or for paparazzi photos. And the more zoom is in the lens the crappier the lens optics will be (or more expensive, or both) that is why the best optics are prime lenses with no zoom at all and just one specific optical length each. For example almost all my Debconf photos of the last two years are taken with one lens – Canon 35mm f/2.0 (a 50mm equivalent on my camera) and only the group shots are taken with a lens that is equivalent to 85mm.

So I guess if I was going to get an interchangeable lens camera then I could get fixed focus lenses for things that are close and far away and one with a small zoom range for random other stuff. Of course that would get me way outside my budget unless I got some good deals on the second hand market. Also having a camera that can fit into a pocket is a real benefit, and the ability to rapidly get a camera out and take a picture is important!

A final item is the so-called ISO Number which specifies how fast the film is. A higher number means that a photograph can be taken with less light but that the quality will generally be lower. It seems that you have a trade-off between a low F number (and therefore low Depth of Field), good lighting (maybe a flash), a long exposure time (blurry if the subject or camera isn’t still) and a grainy picture from a high ISO number.

Comparing Almost-Affordable Great Digital Cameras

I visited Michaels camera store in Melbourne [9] and asked for advice about affordable cameras that support RAW capture (every DSLR does but I don’t want to pay for a DSLR). The first option they suggested was the Samsung EX1 that does 10MP, F1.8-F2.4 with a 24-72mm equivalent focal range (3* optical zoom), and 640*480 video [10] for $399.

The next was a Nikon P7000 that does 10MP, F2.8-5.6 with 7* optical zoom (28-200mm equivalent), and 720p video [11] for $599.

The final option they had was the Canon G12 that does 10MP, F2.8-4.5 with 5* optical zoom (28-140mm equivalent), and 720p video [12] for $599.

3* optical zoom isn’t really enough, and $599 is a bit too much for me, so it seems that RAW format might not be an option at this time.

Conclusion

I can’t get what I want for great photography at this time, there seems to be nothing that meets my minimum desired feature set and costs less than $550. A client who’s a professional photographer is going to lend me an old DSLR that he has hanging around for some photography I want to do on the weekend.

I am also considering buying a Olympus MJU 5010 for making videos and general photography, it’s better than anything else I own at this time and $128 is no big deal.

Please let me know if I made any errors (as opposed to gross simplifications) in the above summary of the technical issues, also let me know if there are other things to consider. I will eventually buy a camera that can capture RAW images.

Quality of Cameras in Phones

The discussion in the comments on my post about a mobile phone for Sysadmin use [1] turned to the issue of picture quality. This is an issue for a sysadmin as photographing the screen of a crashed computer while being a rare occurrence can be an important part of solving a computer problem.

Lon recommended a review of phone cameras by the Norwegian site Amobil [2]. This review only included devices that had already passed earlier review, so even the HTC Desire HD (which came last on the Amobil tests) still has a better camera than most phones on the market. It’s a pity that no English-language site seems to have done such a review.

The Amobil article (when translated) says: “In the mobile industry is faced with the need for much extra processing for the images to look good, because there is no room for large optics and large image sensors that receive sufficient amount of light”.

IMHO that’s overstating the case. I have yet to see a camera-phone that couldn’t be redesigned in a trivial way to give a better camera functionality. It appears that the limiting factor is the thickness of phone which limits the maximum focal length and therefore the maximum area (I presume it’s safe to assume that Fresnel lenses are not viable for cameras). My LG U990 Viewty is 14.8mm thick, I would be happy with something a bit thicker if it gave a better picture, 30mm wouldn’t be a problem (my first few mobile phones were thicker than that and had no camera). Maybe a design could have the camera stick out such that the main body of the phone was 15mm thick while the camera part was 30mm. Also having the camera in a central part of the phone (underneath the touch-screen) probably loses at least 1mm of focal length. It seems that the amount of light captured will be the square of the focal length, so an ideal (IMHO) camera design could have twice the depth of a Viewty, 4* the light captured, and therefore have an 8MP camera with a better response in adverse light than the Viewty (which is pretty good for a phone but crap for a camera).

I noted in the comments that it’s a pity that camera-phones don’t support storing pictures in RAW format, Paul pointed out that the Nokia N900 supports RAW pictures. I’m glad to learn that at least one phone-camera manufacturer is doing the sane thing, now we just need to have RAW pictures as a check-list item on reviews to force others to do the same. I wonder whether a modified version of the Android OS could support RAW format…

Amobil published an article about some joint ventures between camera and phone companies [3]. Apparently LG are working on a phone with 3* Optical Zoom that uses Pentax optics, while the Olympus camera company is considering the purchase of a phone company with the apparent aim of producing a killer camera-phone.

I wonder whether I should delay the purchase of my next phone for a few months to take advantage of some of these developments. If nothing else I expect some significant improvements in the screen resolution of phones in the near future. The maximum screen resolution that is common at the moment is 800*480 (WVGA), but the iPhone 4 supports 960*640 resolution which is 60% more pixels and I expect other manufacturers to release phones to compete with it in the near future.

A First Digital Camera

I’ve just been asked for advice on buying a digital camera. I’m not an expert on cameras but I have a good general knowledge of technology – and I’m sure that the readers of my blog will correct me rapidly if I make any serious mistakes. ;)

Types of Camera

The Wikipedia Page about Digital Cameras is worth reading [1].

Here are the types of camera that are useful as a stand-alone camera (IE not camera phones or industrial cameras):

  • Digital SLR – large, very capable, and very expensive. They have detachable lenses and a prism to split the light between a viewfinder and the CCD that records the digital photo. Such a split provides much less benefit now that you can have an LCD display for the viewfinder. In Australia they seem to start at about $1500.
  • Bridge Cameras – they are of a similar size and shape to a Digital SLR, but the lens is permanently attached and the price is a lot lower. Typically between $400 and $800.
  • Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras – they allow changing lenses like a DSLR but don’t have the prism for an optical viewfinder. This makes the optics simpler and cheaper. Andre Pang wrote a good review of one [2] – which sells for about $700.
  • Compact cameras – small and cheap. Between $60 and $400 depending on features.

I suggest that people not start out a hobby of digital photography with a DSLR or other interchangeable lens camera. I think that it’s best to start out with simple gear that’s cheap – if you decide that digital photography is not your thing then you have wasted less money, and if you really get into it then you’ll be able to make a more informed choice about an expensive camera after getting some experience.

A spare cheap compact camera can be useful even if you own a more expensive camera. There are times when you don’t want the bulk of a DSLR or Bridge Camera and when you have a risk of theft or accidental damage such that you don’t want to take an expensive camera. People who are really serious about photography apparently take a camera everywhere, you could have a compact camera in your front pocket for fast pictures and a bulky camera in your backpack for when you have time to prepare a quality shot. So buying a cheap camera and then buying an expensive one a few months later would not be wasting money!

As the person who asked for advice has never owned a digital camera before I’ll focus on cheap compact cameras for the rest of this post.

Pixels and Lenses

Cameras are typically advertised with the resolution in Megapixels described in bold. Presumably most people search for the camera with the highest resolution. The first thing to beware of is cameras that don’t have hardware which is capable of taking a picture of the stated resolution, they use interpolation to generate a higher resolution image. There are probably some cameras with interpolation that are OK and provide a decent picture at a low price, but generally I recommend avoiding all cameras that do interpolation.

Optical zoom is a very important feature. Often pictures have to be cropped to remove unwanted background, if you zoom in appropriately you can avoid cropping and make better use of the available resolution. Beware of cameras that advertise things such as “advanced zoom“, anything that doesn’t exactly say “optical zoom” is using digital zoom – IE interpolation. I suggest not considering a compact camera unless it can do at least 4* optical zoom, with 5* or better being preferable.

The physical size of the lens is important. A bigger lens allows better pictures in adverse lighting and also allows a faster shutter speed to give better photos of moving objects and better photos when you are moving. Generally you can get a rough idea of the potential that a camera has by just glancing at the lens, if it’s the size of a lens in a mobile phone then the pictures won’t be that great. If it is on a telescopic mount and it’s wide then the result will be better. When buying a lens for a DSLR or other detachable lens camera you should be able to read specifications of the lens which indicate it’s size. For compact cameras the specifications of the lens are usually available from the vendor and often available from review sites but generally aren’t included in adverts by retailers. If you are comparing cameras in the store looking at them seems like the best option.

The ratio of the lens area to the number of pixels determines how much light is received by the sensors for each pixel. So when there are two cameras that are essentially identical apart from the number of megapixels the one with the highest number isn’t necessarily better in all situations. A 12MP camera might not give a better result than a 10MP camera, a monitor described as “Full HD” has a resolution of 1920*1080 which is 2MP. A 5MP camera is useful to allow cropping but if the aim is to display pictures on current monitors then anything much bigger than 5MP is probably wasted at this time and 10MP will provide pictures that can use the capabilities of monitors that are developed for a while.

Printing

Some printers that are affordable for home use might require something like a 7MP camera to print a picture at A4 or Letter size at the highest quality. Professional printing will probably require something even greater. But if your intended use of a digital camera doesn’t involve printing the pictures, or only rarely involves printing them at A4 or Letter size then you don’t need a high resolution for printing. I expect that there are some available printers that can use paper at sizes such as B3 which might require a 20MP camera for best quality. But if the aim of the printing is to put a picture on your wall (the most common case) then even if it’s not at the ideal resolution then probably no-one will notice the difference – you can’t see the pixels from a few meters away.

If the aim of the camera is to photograph professional artwork for the purpose of selling it on the Internet then a high resolution camera really isn’t desired. You want to offer pictures on the Internet which aren’t good enough to be usefully printed.

Video

The capabilities for recording video can vary significantly between different cameras in the same range. If you don’t care about video then that’s fine, but if video matters to you then you have to read the specs. It’s also worth considering digital video cameras, I have previously summarised the available digital video cameras – although I’m sure that there have been some new models since then [3]. A good (expensive) digital camera will have video functionality that compares well to most digital video cameras – but it will cost a lot more.

Choosing a Compact Camera

There are many compact cameras in the $100 to $150 price range. Ted’s has the Samsung Digimax ES65 for $99.95 which has 10MP and 5* optical zoom. This seems like a good deal. Practice with a cheap camera could easily allow you to make a better choice when buying a more expensive camera that saves you more than $100 so it seems unlikely that you will have any great regrets about buying a $100 camera.

Buying from the specs is a bad idea, I recommend testing a camera in the store before buying – every store that you want to buy from allows this. But don’t expect that quality pictures in the store means much, the people who run the camera stores usually set them up with good lighting so that pictures will tend to turn out well. The aim of an in-store test is not to discover what the camera does well, but to discover what (if anything) it does badly. Also it’s useful to test the ergonomics of the camera before buying, discover whether you would be happy to hold the camera for an hour.

It’s a good idea to ask the staff at a camera store for advice, but don’t rely on such advice. My experience is that they tend not to ask what the prospective customer plans to do with the camera and this significantly limits the quality of their recommendations.

Conclusion

Make your first digital camera a cheap compact camera that doesn’t cost much more than $100. Make sure it has at least 4* optical zoom with 5* being preferred. Don’t worry too much about the number of megapixels, anything more than 5 will do. Test the camera in the store to look for any obvious reasons that make it unsuitable for your use. If you want video then be prepared to pay a little more as the cheapest cameras have a low resolution for video.

A Mobile Phone for Sysadmin Use

My telco Three have just offered me a deal on getting a new phone a couple of months earlier than my contract was supposed to expire, presumably they have some competition and want to get me locked into another 2 year contract a couple of months before anyone else has the chance.

My current phone is a LG U990 Viewty [1] which I am reasonably happy with for the regular phone and camera functionality (apart from it being too slow to take a photo), it’s on a $29 per month plan. I also have a 3G modem which is on a $15 per month plan for 1G of data per month for a total cost of $44 per month. As new phones have advanced client functionality (ssh, IMAP, etc) and have Wifi support for providing net access to a laptop there seems to be less need to have a separate phone and modem. So I am considering getting a high-end phone to replace the phone and modem, so while I don’t want to pay a lot more than I currently pay, a $49 contract would be quite affordable and a $59 contract is something I can consider.

What I need is a system with a good ssh client implementation, a high resolution screen (800*480 or better), preferably a slide out keyboard and an option to use a Bluetooth keyboard.

The best option for the OS seems to be Android as it’s based on Linux, it’s moderately open, and it has a good range of applications. The Nokia N900 has been recommended based on features but a friend had a bad experience with a N900 that broke and didn’t get good warranty support. Also the N900 doesn’t have a digital compass (so can’t do augmented reality). While I’m primarily buying a phone for making phone calls, using the net, and being a ssh client I want to be able to do cool things like do Google searches on things that I photograph and have an annotated star map when I point my phone at the sky. Also as I’m not using Windows or Apple phones for obvious reasons that leaves Android phones as the only suitable phones that are on offer from my Telco.

I have checked some options for buying a grey-market phone, given that I need to get a more expensive phone contract to have the voice and data access I need the cost of buying a grey-market phone and having a no-phone contract would be unreasonable. So selecting a phone that’s on offer by Three/Vodaphone seems to be the best option. Moving to another telco would be inconvenient as I would have to convince the relatives that I call often to switch as well (I get free calls to other Three/Vodaphone customers).

I previously listed some phones that seemed good without regard as to where I could buy them [2] and some people wrote some really interesting and informative comments (thanks a lot!). But after considering all the options it seems that the costs of the various options force me to choose something that Three offers.

Currently the best option from Three for an Android phone seems to be the HTC Desire HD [3]. It has a 800*480 screen, an 8MP camera with face-detection and geo-tagging, wifi, an accelerometer, GPS, and a digital compass. It also runs Android 2.2 (the latest release). Generally it has everything I want apart from a slide-out keyboard. It seems that Bluetooth keyboards are about $100 each, so I could buy such a keyboard and have options of taking just the phone, the phone and keyboard, or phone and laptop depending on how much I can carry and what I expect to be doing.

Three Prices

The Desire HD is free on a $59 plan, or costs $15 per month on the $29 plan. So for $44 per month (the same as what I spend now) I can get a Desire HD! The down-side is that the $29 plan only allows 200MB of data per month and has an excess data fee of $0.50 per meg. My average usage has been about 300MB per month, I could reduce this a bit but I do occasionally have a month where I need a lot of data transfer. For an extra $8 per month I can get an additional 500MB of data transfer. That would give me a total cost of $52 per month for my phone, and I could get the same phone for my wife for $44 per month (I doubt that she would use the 200MB of data included). That would take a typical Three bill from $73 to $96.

I might just wait a few months. The Viewty and 3G modem combination is working reasonably well, presumably there will be some better deals if I wait a while. At least now after considering all the options I could find and determining that a Desire HD from Three is the best option for me I can now evaluate any new options by comparing them to that.

Choosing an Android Phone

My phone contract ends in a few months, so I’m looking at getting a new Android phone. I want a big Android phone (in both physical size and resolution) that has a physical keyboard, a digital compass, A-GPS and at least a 5MP camera with geo-tagging.

I want to be able to read PDF files and run ssh sessions, so a big screen is required and a physical keyboard avoids wasting screen space for a soft-keyboard. My pockets will fit something about 10.5cm wide by 17cm high but I don’t expect anyone to manufacture such a large phone. High resolution is a good thing too, it seems that the best available at the moment is 854*480 (with 800*480 being reasonably common).

I want Wifi and all the 3G and GSM data transfer standards. It would be ideal to have a phone with the dual networking stack needed to do both voice and data at the same time.

I’m not interested in anything that runs a version of Android older than 2.2 as native tethering is important. An option to upgrade to post 2.2 would be a really good thing.

Here are the nearest options I could find:

Phone Resolution Screen Size (inches) Camera Resolution Notes
Motorola Milestone 854*480 3.7 5MP
Motorola Droid 854*480 3.7 5MP
LG VS 740 800*480 3.2 3.2MP no GPS or compass
Lenovo LePhone 800*480 3.7 3MP no GPS or compass

It seems that Motorola makes the phones that best suit my needs, does anyone know of any better options?

Digital Video Cameras

I’ve just done some quick research on Digital Video Cameras for some relatives. It seems to me that the main feature that is necessary is Full HD (1920*1080) resolution as everyone seems to be getting 1920*1080 resolution monitors (getting smaller doesn’t save enough money to be worth-while). Resolutions higher than 1920*1080 will probably available in affordable monitors in the next few years, so the ability of programs like mplayer to zoom videos will probably be required even for Full HD video soon. Saving maybe $300 on a video camera while getting a lower resolution doesn’t seem like a good idea.

The next feature is optical zoom, most cameras are advertised with features such as “advanced zoom” to try and trick customers, cameras which advertise 60* or better zoom often turn out to only have 20* zoom. I think that about 20* optical zoom should be considered the minimum, not that there is anything special about 20* zoom, it’s just that there is a good range of cameras with better zoom capacity.

Image stabilisation is a required feature, no-one can keep their hand perfectly steady and the typically a DVC only gets hand-held use – most people who own them don’t even own a tripod! Digital image stabilisation is apparently not nearly as good as optical image stabilisation, and image stabilisation that involves moving the CCD is apparently somewhere in between.

Finally it’s good to have the ability to take quality photos as few people will want to carry a Digital Camera and a Digital Video Camera.

I did a search for DVCs on the web site of Ted’s Camera store (a chain of camera stores in Australia that generally provide good service at a competitive price – but not the cheapest price). The best of the Ted’s options seems to be the Panasonic SD60 HD Video [1] which does 25* optical zoom, 1920*1080i video, 5 megapixel still photography, and optical image stabilisation – it costs $750 from Ted’s.

The next best option seems to be the Sony Handycam HDR-CX110 HD [2] which does 25* optical zoom, 1920*1080i video, 3.1 megapixel 2048*1536 still photography, and digital image stabilisation. The Panasonic seems to be a better option due to having optical image stabilisation and a higher resolution for still photographs. It is also $750 from Ted’s.

Now there’s the issue of how well the cameras work on Linux. A quick Google search indicated that the Sony cameras present themselves as USB card readers and can be mounted on a Linux system, I couldn’t discover anything about the Panasonic. If I was going to buy one I would take my Netbook to the store and do a quick test.

I don’t have enough information to recommend either of those cameras, they may have some awful defects that are only apparent when you use them. But in terms of features they seem pretty good. The Panasonic SD60 HD Video should be a good benchmark when comparing cameras in the store. If nothing else the camera store staff seem to not be very helpful if asked generic questions such as “which camera is best”, but if asked questions such as “how is this other camera better than the one I’m looking at” they can usually give good answers.

If anyone has any other advice for purchasing a DVC then please let me know. Either generic advice or specific examples of Linux-friendly DVCs that have been purchased recently.

My Ideal Mobile Phone

Based on my experience testing the IBM Seer software on an Android phone [1] I have been considering what type of mobile phone to get when my current contract expires. Here are the features above what is common in current smart phones that I think most people will sorely miss if they don’t have them for the 2011-2012 period:

  1. Camera that takes reasonable quality pictures at a 5MP resolution.
  2. High resolution screen (VGA or better).
  3. GPS (for navigation and augmented reality.
  4. Digital compass for augmented reality.
  5. An open market for applications which allows free software to be installed – such as OpenSSH.

The first two items shouldn’t be a problem, there has been a constant trend towards better cameras and higher resolution screens in phones. The difficult ones are GPS and a Digital compass which require phone software to use them. I get the impression that Android and iPhone are going to share the market for fully functional smart phones (because they have the market of applications). So I predict that by 2012 the phone market will have iPhone and Android fully functional smart phones as well as budget phones that don’t support running applications (and will probably lack a compass and GPS).

Here are the features that while not essential, will greatly increase the experience of using a phone for serious users:

  1. At least 2G of storage built in – installing a 2G micro-SD card is not adequate.
  2. A screen that can be easily read during the day – maybe Pixel Qi.
  3. The ability to give a good quality of sound for playing video and audio recordings with a regular headphone jack (so I can use my Bose headset).

For my use a hardware keyboard (such as is used in the Motorolla A855 “Droid”) is essential. I want to have a pocket sized ssh client for emergencies, and I want to be able to type notes reasonably quickly.

I wonder what portion of the smart-phone user base actually needs a keyboard. I’ve seen many people who use a smart-phone as just a regular phone that can exchange photos. Even among people who are moderately serious about smart-phone use there are probably many who only want to take high resolution photos and tag them with GPS data. Currently there are no Android phones on sale in Australia that have a hardware keyboard, I’m worried that this may be an ongoing trend which will result in people with my requirements being forced to either pay significantly more or compromise on features due to the market meeting the needs of average people.

Finally I would like to have a smart-phone that has a regular USB port for plugging in devices (which would of course require an adapter as the size of a phone doesn’t permit a regular USB port). That would permit copying files from USB flash devices, driving a digital SLR camera, and printing photos directly to a USB printer. It would also allow connecting a USB video device, keyboard, and mouse to make a mobile phone work as a desktop workstation. Current smart phones have a lot more compute power than the desktop machines I was using in 1998, so there’s no reason that one couldn’t be used as a workstation with the appropriate peripherals.

The Australian Open and Android Phones (Seer)

On Monday the 25th of January 2010 I visited the Australian Open [1] – it’s one of the world’s greatest tennis championships and it’s on in Melbourne right now. IBM sponsored my visit to show me the computer technology that they use to run the event and display the results to the world via their web site and to various media outlets.

picture of IBM Seer software running on HTC Hero

The first thing that they showed me was the IBM Seer software on the HTC Hero phone (which runs the Google Android OS). Seer can be freely downloaded from the Android store. The most noteworthy feature is that it uses the camera in the Android phone to display a picture of whatever you are looking at with points of interest superimposed (such as the above picture where I asked for locations of events and toilets). But it also displays a map view and has some other features I didn’t get a chance to test such as viewing twitter data relevant to the event. We really need this augmented reality feature enabled with tourist data for major cities. I’m sure that there’s lots of interesting things I haven’t seen in my own home city, if I could just pull out a phone and see a map of what’s around me whenever I’m bored I could see some of them. I think that this has the potential to change the way we use phones, in theory this was available as soon as Google Maps was released, but Seer seems to be the start of a whole new range of developments. One of the uses of this will be for identifying the background in tourist photos, no more of the “me in front of old building” descriptions.

Here is a Youtube Video of the Seer software in action [BMLgHGV4zWM].

The tour guide explained that to get the software to work on an iPhone would require the 3GS for navigation as the earlier iPhones don’t have a compass. The Seer software was initially developed for The Championships, Wimbledon 2009 which happened at about the same time as the iPhone 3GS release. I expect that there will be enough iPhone 3GS units sold before Wimbledon 2010 to give IBM a good incentive to port Seer to the iPhone.

Three (my phone company at the moment) has just sold out of the HTC Magic which has a digital compass. They are selling the HTC Touch Pro and HTC Touch Diamond that appear to lack a digital compass. Vodaphone is offering a HTC Magic free on the $29 contract right now. The other Australian mobile phone companies don’t seem to offer any Android phones. So it seems that the only option right now if I wanted to purchase a phone in Australia that can run Seer is the Vodaphone HTC Magic, and that’s a phone that was released almost a year ago (a long time with recent progress in phone development – it’s the modem before the HTC Hero I tested) and which has only a 3.2MP camera (the LG U990 Viewty I used to take the picture for this post has a 5MP camera and is older than that). So I expect that there aren’t many people using Seer in Australia.

If you happen to be in Melbourne and have an Android phone with a digital compass then you may want to visit the Australian open to try the Seer software. It should work equally well from outside the security fence…

I’ll write about the other things I saw over the next few days.

Old Mobile Phones as Toys

In the past I have had parents ask for advice on buying a digital camera for a young child. For some years there have been digital cameras on sale for much less than $100 – cheap enough that no-one will be THAT bothered if the child breaks it, so digital photography is a good hobby for a young child. Such cameras are however quite bulky and require AA batteries – which often don’t last that long between charges. Some of the cheap phones are large enough that a 3yo child can have trouble carrying them.

I recently gave an old LG U8110 phone to a young child for use as a camera. The phone has a 640*480 resolution camera and a display that is a few centimeters wide. It’s no good for any remotely serious photography, and among other problems I never managed to get it’s USB connection to work so the only way I ever managed to get a photograph off it was to MMS it to a newer camera. But it’s quite adequate for a child to play with, it’s small, light, and the battery stays charged for ages. Also the phone has a clock built in which is a handy feature – it seems that nowadays the trend in society is away from wearing a watch and towards using a mobile phone to discover the time.

Also a phone is a fairly capable computer, I think that the first two computers that I owned had significantly less CPU power and RAM than an LG U8110 and lots of newer phones compare well to PCs that were manufactured in the mid 90’s. The trend has been towards having an increasing number of applications and games on phones which of course gives more things for a child to play with. I believe that playing with computers that have a variety of different user interfaces and sets of applications is good for the education of young children.

Now to make a phone work you need to have a SIM. If a phone was designed by someone who was intelligent and who was acting on behalf of the owner of the phone then it would support the camera etc without a SIM. But it seems that mobile phones are either designed by idiots or they are designed to act on behalf of the phone companies to the exclusion of the customer’s interests, so I haven’t seen a camera-phone that is usable for any purpose other than calling the emergency services when there is no SIM installed. Fortunately it is possible to get old SIMs, I had one that was replaced due to an intermittent fault that caused calls to drop out. I also have some SIMs from other telcos that would probably work (I’m not sure whether a phone that is locked to one carrier will take photos if a SIM from another carrier is installed).

Update: It seems that there is a range of phones that operate without a SIM, a Nokia N900 (if you consider it to be a phone rather than an Internet tablet), an Android, or a phone running the Symbian OS. I suspect that the majority of phones that are currently in use and due to be replaced soon will require a SIM though.

One final notable aspect of giving a phone to a child is the possibility of it being used to call emergency services (which will work even when there is no SIM or a SIM that is not associated with an account). If you are planning to give a phone to someone else’s child then you should ask the parents first, some parents believe (either correctly or incorrectly) that the chance of their child making prank calls to the emergency services is too great. A present that a child receives which is undesired by their parents will probably get lost or broken quickly…

When such a phone gets broken by a child (they are tough, but almost everything that is used without restriction by a child gets broken) the next thing to do is to disassemble it. With modern design and manufacturing probably all that a child could really learn from a phone is how the keyboard works – and not even that for a touch-screen phone. But it’s still a good experience for a child to take apart old machines. When I was young my father gave me many old machines to take apart, I had a lot of fun and learned some interesting things.

I find it really sad to see those boxes for recycling old phones at the mobile phone stores which are full of 2yo phones that are mostly in good condition. Almost everyone has some young relatives or friends who have children who could find a good use for that stuff. Send the bits to be recycled AFTER the children nearest to you have finished doing things to the old phone!

LG U990 Viewty

back of Viewtyfront of Viewty

I have just got a LG U990 “Viewty” mobile phone [1]. It’s a 3G phone and came free on the $29 monthly cap plan from “Three” (minimum monthly spend is $29 – but this is free if you use $29 per month). My previous plan was the $29 cap but had a minimum spend of $20 per month, as I never happened to use less than $29 per month I am not paying more.

For a modern mobile phone the actual phone functionality is a sideline. If a device was strictly designed to be a phone then I think it would be very similar to the Nokia phones that were available 5+ years ago – the Nokia I had in 1999 performed every phone function that I desired of it.

Like most modern phones the LG U990 “Viewty” suffers in it’s phone functionality from the desire to make it do non-phone tasks and from the desire to cripple it to meet the desires of the carriers (not the desires of the users). For example the “home” screen will always have at least two buttons for paid Three services and I have no configuration option to remove them. Replacing them with speed dial options for a couple of numbers that I regularly call would be handy. As the main screen is a touch-screen there is no excuse for this, they should allow the software to be reconfigured with more useful options. Eventually the Android will kill most of the other phones and this problem of phones being designed to suit the telephone companies instead of the users will be solved.

One of the most annoying mis-features of the phone is that it doesn’t properly handle address book entries with multiple phone numbers. One of my friends turns his mobile off when he is at home, so I regularly call his mobile and then immediately call his home number if the mobile is unavailable. With my previous two mobile phones I could press the “dial” button to bring up the list of previous calls and then use the arrow buttons to select from the other numbers that are attached to the same address-book entry, so with three button presses I would be dialing his other number. With the Viewty I have to go back to the address book.

The compelling feature of the Viewty is the camera and display. It has a 5MP camera which makes it the second highest resolution camera-phone offered by Three – the LG Renoir (KC910) has 8MP but needs a $99 plan for it to be free. It also has a 240*320 resolution touch-screen display (in a quick search in January when I bought my phone the best resolution display I could find on a phone is 240*400 in the LG Renoir).

While the camera is documented as being 5mp there are no specs available about the resolution of the CCD. I want to use the native resolution of the CCD for pictures (I think interpolation is a waste of space). The CCD might actually be 5mp, a picture of the 1400*1050 resolution screen on my Thinkpad allows me to read all the text even when small fonts are in use, so the CCD resolution must be significantly greater than 1400*1050. This is a really important feature as the Viewty will work well for making screen-shots for bug reports about crashed computers (several of my clients have expressed interest in getting one after seeing such a demonstration). One annoying problem is that the camera software takes a while to load, my trusty Sony digital camera starts a lot faster and the LG U890 phone I used for the past two years is also a lot faster and more convenient. This won’t work well for photographing unexpected events. When I am traveling by public transport I will photograph the relevant pages of my street directory as I can zoom in to photos of the maps and read the street names, it saves some weight when traveling. The 2G micro-SD card (which incidentally cost $10 from OfficeWorks) will allow me to store a lot of maps.

One interesting feature is the video recording capabilities. It can do 640*480 resolution at 30fps (which is pretty good) and 320*240 resolution at 120fps (they claim that you can film a balloon popping). In my quick tests the standard 640*480*30fps mode works well, but the 120fps mode requires much brighter light than most of my test environments, so I have not yet got it working properly.

The phone has a reasonable voice recording function, it can record considerably more than 34 hours of audio and the quality is reasonably good if you use an external microphone. It is however quite poor if you use the built-in microphone for a dictaphone function, it seems that quality is poor at any distance. I had wanted to record my LCA mini-conf talks with my phone but unfortunately forgot to bring the adapter for the external microphone. It’s a pity that the phone doesn’t have a standard microphone socket as I have misplaced my Viewty microphone, when designing the phone they should assume that misplacing attachments is a common occurrence and design it to use common parts.

I recently spoke to a journalist who uses his mobile phone to record interviews. He said that his phone supported phone calls, voice recording, and taking pictures – all the essential tasks for his work. It seems that the Viewty would be better than most phones for journalistic work apart from the issue of low quality voice recording when you have misplaced your external microphone.

The text editor is unfriendly in the keyboard mode (I have not tried hand-writing recognition), one thing I don’t like is the fact that the letters jump when you press them. This does allow changing a letter by moving the stylus before releasing the press (some people consider this a great feature). There are no cursor control keys (which is a serious omission), and the keyboard doesn’t resemble a real keyboard. My iPaQ is far better for writing (I once wrote a full-length magazine article on an iPaQ).

The stylus is quite strange and interesting. In the picture of the front of the phone the stylus is compacted with it’s lid on. In the picture of the back of the phone the stylus is extended with the lid off. The end of the stylus clips in to the lid so that removing the lid drags the central part out of the body. It’s an interesting design and with the string on the lid allows the stylus to be attached to the phone when it’s not being used. But I have never used it. Even with an iPaQ (which had a proper stylus that attached firmly inside the body of the device) I often used a fingernail on the touch screen. I have not felt the need to ever use a stylus with my Viewty.

One final noteworthy thing is the support for Google services. It seems to have client support for YouTube, Google Maps, GMail, and Blogger. This seems to be a major win for Google, the Viewty is one of the most popular phones at the moment and I expect that lots of people who buy them will now have an incentive to use the Google services. Between these sorts of deals and the Android I think that it will be necessary to have some sort of anti-trust action against Google. Google are generally doing good things for the users. I have been quite satisfied to use Google search, Google advertising on my blog, and Gmail. Also I have been moderately happy with Blogger (it was good when I started blogging) and Google Maps is useful on occasion. So generally I am happy with Google, but monopolies are bad for the users so I think that if things continue on their current trend then Google may have to be split into several little Googlets some time in the next few years.