The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for November, 2006

Nokia Internet Tablet Errata

Posted by Deliverator on 29th November 2006

Some new pictures and info on the successor device to the 770 (presumably named the 870) have popped up on Engadget. There are some small differences between these pictures and those previously released, as well as some conflicting information provided from reputable inside sources. This has lead several people (including myself) to conclude that the 870 is at a late prototype stage and probably won’t see store shelves for another 3-6 months. In particular, the following is new/conflicting to what has been previous reported:

-Camera will rotate (contradicting previous information), allowing for use of screen as a viewfinder. Camera quality is fairly low and intended primarily as a webcam – in keeping with the device’s “walkabout web” role. Don’t expect this to replace your digicam.

-Comes with a leather case.

-Comes with 180 MB of memory. I presume this to mean 64 MB of flash and 128 MB of ram. I would have preferred more flash for application storage, but 128 MB is about right for the ram needs of such a device.

-There will indeed be two memory card slots. A Mini-SD slot can be found sharing the battery compartment. The external slot remains a RS-MMC slot. This contradicts previous information that the device would have two Mini-SD slots.

The new pictures on Engadget are worth close scrutiny, as they show the built in stand and top buttons for the first time.

In other 770 news, Canola Media Player will be launching today and will be released on Maemo Garage. Canola is one of the most impressive applications created specifically for the 770. It is a media player for both local and streaming media sources and includes support for a number of popular UPnP media servers. Canola is capable of playing a wide variety of audio and video standards, as well as popular picture formats. There are a number of excellent videos of Canola in action on YouTube and beta testers have been singing its praises. With the 770’s excellent 800*480 screen and wireless connectivity options, Canola may just be the killer app for the 770. Forget the Zune’s crappy wifi integration, this is how wireless capability should be leveraged for media! I look forward to being able to pull out my 770 and have access to my full media collection whenever it strikes my fancy.

In a last bit of news, the Maemo dev team announced a fork off Sardine, the bleeding edge version of the Hildon Application Framework. Sardine as it stands now will be forked off into a stabilization branch called Herring. Herring is feature complete and all work on this branch will be of the bug fix/polishing variety. The creation of this stabilization branch is a strong indication that Nokia is trying to wrap up the next version of the IT OS (presumeably IT 2007, if they follow their naming convention) for release on the Nokia 870.

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Seattle Wireless Hacknight – 11/22/06

Posted by Deliverator on 24th November 2006

Most of the guys at Hacknight spent the evening working on a bunch of Arlan 900mhz radios purchased from Ebay. These are wireless devices that predate the 802.11 standard and date from about 1994. The devices all came in access point mode, but some clever use of the Internet Archive revealed a method to convert them to bridges by applying a particular sequence of firmware upgrades and downgrades. A few of the devices were bricked in figuring out the proper process, but it seems like most of the kinks have been worked out now. The Arlan devices only cost about $20 each (compared to modern 900 mhz devices which cost 400+), so nobody is too discouraged about a few bricked ones. The intention is to use these to test the feasibility of linking nodes which for whatever reason can’t be linked with 2.4 ghz radios, such as near line of sight scenarios where dense foliage or a building might separate two isolated nodes. If a link can be established using these old, slow (.5mbit) 900mhz devices, then it should be possible to simply swap in newer (read – expensive), high speed 900mhz gear. At $20, it is a cheap way to test the viability of a link and hey .5mbit is useful in its own right.

A nice guy named Joseph stopped by our table and asked us about what we were doing. Turns out he does a lot of low level system designer/engineer and has a lot of experience with the Motorola 68k family of processors which the Arlan devices use. He is going to try and stop by next week to disassemble some code and provide some more details on the boot process. Hopefully, he might be able to find a way to debrick a few devices, or find an easier way to convert them over to bridging mode. He used to work for Psion and we talked for a while about my Psion Netbook Pro, Nokia 770 and the upcoming 870 (presumed name). He was very disappointed over what has happened to the company over the years, in particular the switch from the EPOC OS (arguably the most stable, robust OS ever featured on a palmtop) to Windows CE.

Ken tested some high power, 400mw mini-pci 802.11g radios from Ubiquiti Networks using a Soekris board. This is a particularly neat radio as it is high power, has excellent receive sensitivity, uses an Atheros chipset supported by the MadWifi driver under Linux and has both MMCX (yay!) and u.FL connector. MMCX is considerably more robust connector, mechanically than u.FL. It also appears that this card is available with an optional SMA connector, which would be better yet. Ken has some doubts as to whether two of these very high power cards will run happily in a low-power Soekris boards, but I expect these cards will find a lot of useful niches.

Matt Westervelt
and I both purchased new lenses for our respective Nikon DSLRs, but have yet to receive them. I purchased a Sigma 30mm F/1.4 and Matt purchased an MC Zenitar 16mm F/2.8 fish-eye lens on eBay from Kiev Camera. This Zenitar fish-eye is one of the cheapest wide-angle lenses currently available at around $150. The lens is made by KMZ which has been making all sorts of optical products since WWII. This lens is strictly manual and the build quality is probably about what you would expect, but for $150 it is probably the cheapest way to experiment with a fish-eye lens. People seem to have a lot of fun with this lens and Flickr has some interesting examples of what can be done with it. I might pick one up once my budget has recovered somewhat from all my recent camera related purchases.

More pics from Hacknight available in the gallery.

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Nokia 870 – Details Revealed

Posted by Deliverator on 22nd November 2006

In the last few weeks, several grainy camera-phone pics and some gnomic comments from Nokia insiders has revealed quite a bit of information on the hotly anticipated successor to the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet.

Nokia 870?

Nokia 870?

The device is presumed to be named the 870, although that is pure speculation at this point. Here are some things that are well established at this point:

  • Nokia has ditched the god-awful reduced size MMC format in favor of TWO mini-SD card slots. One of the two cards is found in the battery bay, while the other will be externally accessible while the device is on. This is a very welcome change. It should allow for easy use of the 870 as a photopreview and photo upload tool. Additionally, it should be a very welcome change for those who use the excellent Maemo Mapper gps system or for people that like to watch movies. This change to Mini-SD is representative of changes in their cellular phone lineup as well.
  • The 870 will have an integrated stand, allowing for easy viewing/use on a table
  • The bottom “bulge” has been removed and all connectors (headphone, usb, power) have been moved to the right side of the device. This should make for a far more attractive/ergonomic device, imo.
  • There has been some consolidation in the number of buttons and the buttons and rocker are smaller. This is not a welcome change for me, as I found the rocker a bit on the small side already in the 770 and felt that there weren’t enough buttons. It would have been nice to have a few unmapped buttons on the right side of the device for application specific use. The buttons on the 870 are no longer discrete/seperated either, but are merged into a sort of 3-way rocker. I am really concerned about how this could impact applications like FBreader, which make heavy use of these buttons.
  • There is now a pop out camera on the left side of the tablet. The camera faces the user, so is presumably for video phone type functionality. The camera can not be rotated, so those of you who had ideas of using the display as a viewfinder while snapping pics had best calm down and start writing Nokia about features for the 970. Personally, I think adding a crappy video camera to the 870 does little for the saleability of the 870 and may actually hurt sales in some markets/businesses which have restrictions on cameras in the office place. I am concerned that Nokia is spending time developing marginally useful video-phone applications, while more important issues like a decent email client and official bluetooth keyboard support remain unresolved.
  • The processor in the 870 appears to be an ARM6, which should allow some applications which require a floating point unit to be ported. Unfortunately, these applications will not be backwards compatible with the 770, so this may somewhat split the developer community. No word yet as to the frequency at which the new processor will be clocked.
  • The 870 will features Opera 8.5 as its web browser versus 8.20 in the 770. There is some evidence that the rendering engine which the browser uses can be switched as well.
  • No word yet as to how much ram will be incorporated in the 870. The 64 MB in the 770 was utterly inadequate, even with the addition of official swap file support.

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Fast Primes for Nikon Digital SLRs?

Posted by Deliverator on 21st November 2006

While I have been greatly pleased with my new Nikon D80 Digital SLR itself, I have been somewhat less pleased with the lenses. My first issue goes to construction quality.

The 18-135mm “kit lens” that came with my D80 (upping the price by about $400 over a bare body) has a distinctly cheap feel to it. The bayonet mount is plastic, as is much of the body. It is good plastic, to be sure, but plastic none-the-less. I know there are constant arguments of “bounces vs dents” when it comes to debates of plastic vs metal construction. For overall body construction issues, I don’t feel really entitled to make an opinion, but I do know that the plastic bayonet mount is going to wear a lot faster from lens attachment/detachment than coated brass would. Additionally, the focus ring on this lens is small and very touchy. I have found using manual focus with this lens to be very trying. It is hard to get it focused just right and get it to actually stay that way. Autofocus is quick and accurate with this lens (due to the ultrasonic motor), but there are many situations in which you are going to have to rely on manual focus.

My second issue is the general lack of fast prime lenses that are well-matched to the smaller sensor of the Nikon DSLRs. Almost all the new DX series lenses in Nikon’s lineup are zoom lenses. The optical quality (if not the build quality) of zoom lenses has improved dramatically over the years due to better coatings, high refractive index glass, computer assisted design, and a host of other factors of which I am not aware. As a general rule, though, a lens targeted at a single focal length is going to be lighter, faster, cheaper to build and of better optical quality. Other optical considerations aside, the thing that frustrates me the most about zoom lenses is that they tend to be quite “slow.” My 18-135 ranges from f3.5 to 5.6, which is often too slow for using available light indoors. Even shooting at high iso speeds, I have found this lens difficult to use indoors without a flash. The results of on camera flash generally suck for any human subject, giving them that “stunned fish” look. I could buy an seperate flash for off-axis use to achieve better results, but why spend money on a flash when a better lens can do the job just as well. Not to mention, subjects tend to be less cooperative after having been hit in the face with a bright light more than a few times.

With my Konica T3 film SLR, I shot exclusively with fixed focal length lenses. My favorite lens is a 50mm “normal” lens which had an aperture that could be opened up all the way to F/1.4. A “normal” lens is, roughly, one that has the same field of view as the human eye. The wide aperture on this lens allows for enough light to hand hold shots in very dim conditions and lets one play around with a wide variety of depth of field effects in creating a composition. I really loved this lens and used it for the vast majority of shots I made with this camera over the years. So, why can’t I simply go out an buy a fast 50mm lens for my Nikon?

One of the advantages of the Nikon lens system is that Nikon has been making lenses for a very long time indeed. Nikon F-mount lenses goes back to 1959. You can use many of these older lenses on a modern DSLR, but often only in manual mode. The biggest disadvantage of using these older lenses is that due to the smaller size of Nikon’s CCD imaging sensor relative to a piece of 35mm film, there is a cropping/focal length multiplying factor of 1.5. In short, what this means is that a 50mm lens on a DSLR gives you the equivalent field of view of a 75mm on a 35mm lens. All lenses, in effect, become more “zoomy.” So, while you can certainly pick up a fast 50mm lens, on a DSLR it no longer presents a “normal” field of view. To get a “normal” field of view on a DSLR you need to go to something in the range of 28-35mm. Nikon has made a lot of lenses in this range of focal lengths over the years, so what is the problem?

While you can use many older lenses with modern DSLRs, most will not convey light metering information, so you have to use them in manual mode. This means guessing at proper exposure and shutter speeds, viewing the results and then adjusting accordingly. This is fine for some situations, but doesn’t make for quick, efficient shooting. Most older lenses are strictly manual focus. Nikon sells several 28 and 35mm lenses that are reasonably fast (f/2-f/2.8) and which also incorporate auto focus, but they use the old “electric screwdriver” means of changing the focus, which is noisy, slow and sometime inaccurate. Many of these lenses have to be manually switched back and forth between manual and autofocus modes. Most newer designed lenses which use internal, ultrasonic motors (rather than an electric screwdriver in the body) allow for instant switching between auto focus and manual focus, simply by twisting the focus ring. These ultrasonic motors are really nice, as it enables one to quickly auto focus and then touch up the focus if needed. The general feeling I get is that Nikon has really not updated its lens lineup to mesh well with digital bodies.

Although Nikon’s lens lineup has some holes in it, other companies are moving in to fill at least some of the voids. Sigma recently introduced a 30mm f/1.4 designed to be about “normal” on a DSLR’s smaller sensor size. Set beside a modern Nikon 35mm f/2, one can easily see the sheer light gathering potential of the Sigma. Another thing you may notice is the lack of an aperture ring on the Sigma. The Sigma optics are designed to throw light on just the smaller DSLR sensor. If you were able to use it at all with a film body, one would notice a lot of vignetting (light falloff) around the edges of the image. Because the Sigma lens is only going to be used on a DSLR, the aperture ring becomes unnecessary, as one can simply set the aperture with the thumb wheel on the DSLR body. The Sigma also incorporates an internal “hypersonic motor” allowing for fast, quite focusing and instant interruption for manual adjustment. In the half dozen reviews I read, I did see some complaints about the accuracy of the auto focus in certain situations, but the bulk of reviews had good things to say about this lens overall. Despite some reservations about off-brand lenses, I was disappointed enough in Nikon’s own offerings that I went ahead and placed an order for this lens at sigma4less. I will try to provide a reasonably amateurish review after it has arrived and I’ve had a chance to play around with it in a variety of scenarios.

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