Thursday, October 27, 2016

I Survived Reviewing the Samsung Galaxy J7 Prime! My Story...

I'll be honest. I am an iOS user and am a big fan of Apple.

Most things Apple.

So, it seemed unimaginable for me to use, much less like, Samsung branded smartphones. But that's exactly what happened when I used the Samsung Galaxy J7 Prime for the first time.

First, the basics.

It is a smartphone that has a 5.5-inch display. It has 3 GB of RAM and it has a 13-megapixel main and 8-megapixel selfie cameras. It has 16GB of internal storage though storage can be expanded using a micro-SD card. It runs on Android 6.0 Marshmallow and it has a huge battery rated at 3300mAh. It has full HD resolution display and the phone comes in either gold or black. The one I am reviewing is the gold version. It has wifi, bluetooth, GPS and dual SIM trays. Surprisingly, though, it does not have NFC. There's a headphone jack, of course. It can connect to cellular connections via GSM/CDMA, 3G and 4G/LTE.

The build quality, as can be expected of most phones in this day and age, is great. It has a brushed metal construction and the glass front seems to wrap around the edges. This makes the phone feel smaller than the iPhone 6s+ though both have the same screen size. It feels good in the hand and, in some cases, one-handed operation can be achieved. It has a fingerprint sensor located at the front home button.

So how did it feel like using the phone?

Well, the phone is really snappy. I deliberately opened a lot of apps and, despite having 15 or so apps running in the background, the phone did not suffer any significant slow downs. The fingerprint sensor is very responsive, even more responsive than the one that is in the iPhone 6s+, especially when my fingers got sweaty when I work out. I am just wondering, though, why there are only three slots for fingerprints. For me, the minimum number should be four: two thumbs and two forefingers... Anyway, I was surprised to find out that I really didn't have to press the home button for the J7 Prime to begin unlocking the phone. I just need to rest my thumb on the home buttons and the phone will unlock it.

As an iPhone user, it took me some time to get used to the buttons at the base of the phone. Normally, with the iPhone, I rest my thumb on the right or left side of the home button. However, as there are buttons beside the home button on the J7 Prime, I almost always invoked the "Back" and "Multitasking" buttons on it. It took me a couple of days or so to get used to it and now, I actually miss it on my iPhone...

But of course, smartphones are smart simply because of the apps available to it. There are stock apps made by Samsung itself, like its own calendar, mail, web browser, etc. However, I just used the ones provided by Google as my main drivers for all of my Google-related subscriptions. I can say I am fairly happy with it. But of course, I downloaded other non-Google made apps also, like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. And these apps are as functional as their iOS counterparts, though it feels as if the apps equivalent on iOS are more mature. Also, I miss other apps that are made exclusively for the iPhone, like Tweetbot and Hipstamatic. But these base apps are of course all great. (Snapseed, the one made by Google, is of course a great photo editing app also.)

So, as far as social media is concerned, the Google Play Store has you covered. And of course, there is also the Galaxy App Store where you can buy apps also. The Samsung App store even has some apps that are exclusive to Galaxy users.

The sound produced by the J7 is very nice when used with a decent pair of earphones. And yes, there is a 3.5mm headphone jack here. The loudspeaker of the phone is loud enough, though it is not as loud as the one on the iPhone 6s+. Also, the sound produced by this speaker is on the tiny side and mids and highs tend to be muffled.

And, because I am primarily a photographer, I used the camera on this phone extensively. It shoots Full HD 1080p movies, though there is no 4K video capture. But what is more surprising for me is the exclusion of slow motion and time lapse, a couple of things that I really, really like and look for in cameras that I use, whether cameraphones or actual cameras... For stills however, this camera has a lot of gimmicks for potential users. There is Panorama, HDR, and "Beauty", to name a few. Yes, "Beauty". In this mode, the phone smoothens out whatever wrinkles you may have on you. I tried it out, and, well... Don’t use it extensively. The “smoothened” out portion of your face might have some artifacts from whatever software ninja the phone did. Just look at the change in color on my right cheek on the photo below...

There is also a "Pro" mode in the camera app and with this switched on, you can actually control the cameras exposure compensation, ISO value and white balance. However, you cannot control the aperture priority nor the shutter speed for each shot.

Images come out nice. Photos in brightly-lit conditions come out nicely, though the phone cannot really handle scenes with high dynamic range: details are lost in the dark portions of the pictures. Photos that come out straight from the camera are punchier as compared to the ones produced by the iPhone 6s+ when taken from amply lit rooms, like in a restaurant. That is, the photos produced by the J7 Prime are more saturated. I like it. However, under bright sunlight, photos come out washed out.

Also, photos produced by the J7 Prime have a warmer tone to them, compared to the iPhone 6s+.

My gripe with the camera however, is that it is slow to focus. The focusing speed of this phone pales in comparison to that of the iPhone 6s+. What’s more, you can set the focus point of the shot before you actually push the shutter release button. But, when you do press that button, the camera will refocus and there is even a chance that the camera will focus on something else. I was hoping that the camera of this smartphone would have fared better… The other smartphone that I am reviewing, the Huawei P9 focuses faster than the J7 Prime.

All in all, the camera in the J7 Prime will serve many people well and only really discerning photographers will be able to tell its shortcomings. And anyway, when you let Instagram process the photos, things will actually even out. It will be up to your preferences how you want your own photos to look.

As a final note, the camera has no optical image stabilization, so that's another thing you have to consider when you make photos in low light conditions. The f/1.9 maximum aperture will be a big help but you can only take this so far when the amount of ambient light go down. And of course, when the light decreases, the amount of noise in your photos increases. So, in low-light conditions, proceed with caution... Sample video can be found here: 

Anyway, I never thought I'd say this, but I actually enjoyed my time reviewing the Samsung Galaxy J7 Prime (though that name is really a mouthful...). It is really a very capable phone and it is a nice entry to the world of Android (if you are an iOS user). I had a great time using it and I am a little sad that I have to return it.

The Samsung Galaxy J7 Prime is Highly Recommended.

Photos shot with an iPhone 6+ using the iOS app Hipstamatic

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Fitbit Charge 2 Review - Still One of the Best

The Fitbit Charge HR is the best selling fitness tracker of 2015. So, it is only apropos that Fitbit discontinued that line by replacing it with something so much better:

The Charge 2 seems like the offspring of the aforementioned HR and the Fitbit Alta. The Charge 2 combines the width, the heart rate sensor and the band style of the Charge HR with the OLED display of the Alta and its jewelry-like appearance.

Just like the Alta, the Charge 2 is being sold not only as a fitness band but as a jewelry accessory also. It has removable bands, so you are not stuck to the band that came with the unit. Fitbit also offers bands that are made up of leather, though I don't think it is a good idea to use the leather band when you are working out... The leather is supposed to go with your dress or your tux.

And for me, the Fitbit Charge 2 succeeds in doing that - to be a fashion accessory rather than an obvious fitness tracker. For me, the glossy appearance of the display makes it feel like its a jewelry-like accessory. I just wish that all Charge 2 came in the all-black, gun-metal look. For me, the silver metal on the side of the display causes a distraction to the over-all look and feel of the device. However, despite this, and because of its form factor, I consider the Charge 2 as a bracelet, rather than a watch or a fitness tracker. So, I don't mind pairing it with my G-Shock watch, if ever I had a desire to wear that proper watch.

As I have said, the band of the Charge 2 is user-replaceable. So that means, you can wash the band after so many sweaty work-out sessions. Note though that if you decided to wash the band, you should detach it from the Charge 2 body as it is not water-proof. The Charge 2 is only sweat, splash and rain-proof. It's a pity that Fitbit did not make the Charge 2 waterproof. I don't swim for fitness reasons, but I have sometimes been caught in the rain while jogging and, every time, I feel that the Charge 2 is gonna die on me. But thank goodness it has not happened. Yet, I hope that the Charge 3, or whatever Fitbit will call the next version is already waterproof.

The Charge 2 is a complete fitness tracker and can give most fitness trackers a run for the money, including the more expensive ones. It tracks exercises automatically: if you spend 15 minutes or more of continuous activity, Fitbit will be able to properly guess what you are doing for you. As an example, I had forgotten to set my treadmill run several times already, but when I sync my Charge 2 to my iPhone, the Fitbit app already said that what I did was run on a “treadmill“. If you are not happy with the app's classification, you can change it after the fact. You have several choices on the type of activity, like biking, interval workout, yoga, pilates, basketball, etc.

And speaking of interval training, you can set the Charge 2 to give you cues when you want to change paces between fast phase and rest phase. Say you set your interval workout to be a sequence of 3 minutes of sprint and 5 minutes of slow jog. Once the 3 minute sprint is up, the Charge 2 will vibrate and you can then slow down to a moderate pace. Then, the Charge 2 will vibrate again once the 5 minute rest period is over.

The Charge 2 doesn't have a built-in GPS antenna, but it can piggy-back on the GPS antenna of your mobile phone. I tried walking with this feature on and my pace and distance travelled were fairly precise. However, by looking at the map, it seems I was able to jump over buildings in a single bound... However, that is the phone's GPS's fault, and not that of the Charge 2.

The heart rate sensor of the Charge 2 is heaven sent. With it, I can tell at what heart rate zone my heart is. From normal, to fat burn, to cardio and to peak. Peak is what all of us should attain. This is the heart rate zone that will really improve your fitness level. If you constantly reach this zone, then you will have a healthier heart in general. And comparing the heart rate measurement of the Charge 2 with that of the heart rate sensor on the machines in the gym, my iPhone and a dedicated BP monitor, I can say that the heart rate measurement of the Charge 2 is really precise.

The Fitbit Charge 2 can also determine your VO2 Max number. With this number, you will be able to find out your fitness level compared to other people of the same age group. I am happy to say that my fitness level is between very good and excellent...

I love my Fitbit Charge 2! :)

The Charge 2 can also measure the quality of your sleep and you don't have to set it before going to sleep. Based on your lesser movements and lowered heart rate, Fitbit will know that you are already sleeping. [On a side note, my other Fitbit tracker, the Surge, thought I was asleep when I watched Batman Vs Superman... Just saying…] When you sync the tracker to the app when you wake up, you will be able to determine the quality of your sleep and your resting heart rate. For almost a year now, I am happy to say that, since I first wore a Fitbit wrist tracker with a heart rate sensor, my resting heart rate has gone down by 5 points. However, I have a friend in the Philippine Navy whose heart rate is 17 points lower than mine! I don't know if I will be able to catch that...

The Charge 2 can also measure your floors climbed, something that the Apple Watch Series 2 can't even do. That fact, that the Apple Watch can't measure floors climbed is really baffling for me. Even my very first Fitbit, the One, which I had in 2014, can measure floors climbed! The Charge 2 can also remind you to stand and walk for three minutes (or 250 steps) per hour if you have been sedimentary. This is a very nice reminder though I think I have only achieved getting 10-three minute hourly activity for one day…

I have heard this somewhere: sitting is the new smoking... So the Charge 2 can, in principle, prevent us from being stuck in our desks and couches.

There is also a new "Relax" app within the Charge 2. With this, the tracker can tell you to breathe, hold your breath and breathe out. It's a new mindfulness activity that seems to be in vogue at the moment. The watchOS 3 in the Apple Watch also has this. I don't, however, use this much because I feel I am not "chill" enough... The wife, who actually practices Zen meditations, will actually benefit more from this.

And of course, all of these stats are combined beautifully in the Fitbit app. Actually, your data from the tracker is essentially useless if you don't use the app. With the app, you can see your progress and your past achievements. Fitbit has one of the best, if not the best, and most comprehensive app among fitness tracker makers and the stats captured by the Charge 2 is beautifully displayed, stored and summarized in its fitness app.

The Charge 2, when paired with your smart phone, can alert you to incoming calls, text messages and calendar events. However, the display is not big enough to make the notifications meaningful, so I just turn the thing off. It can do in a pinch though you should not expect much from the 1.5-inch display.

The battery life of the Charge 2, according to Fitbit is five days. I can almost get that value though by the end of the fifth day, the Charge 2 is practically begging me to put it in the charger. And speaking of chargers, this is one thing that I am absolutely not thrilled with Fitbit. Each tracker has its own proprietary charger. I love the iPhone and the iPad but I hate the fact that the charging cable that I have to use for them is not a common standard, like USB 3.0. Well, Fitbit is worse... The chargers used for the One, the Surge, and the Charge 2 are all different! Even the charger for the Charge 2 and the Charge HR are not the same! So, if you are upgrading from an HR to the 2 and you thought that you can use the same charger... Well, no... At least for the iPhone and the iPad, I only need to use the one charging cable.

All-in-all, the Fitbit Charge 2 is a winner and is what most people will need if they want to enter the world of fitness trackers. It is more capable than a lot of trackers in the same line and it can even give more advanced, more expensive trackers a run for their money. If you want to start using a fitness tracker, get the Charge 2. If you're Charge HR is already failing - its battery, its band - then get the Charge 2. If you want to complement your Apple Watch, which cannot really measure the quality of your sleep, get a Charge 2.

The Fitbit Charge 2 is Highly Recommended!

Photos shot with an iPhone 6+ using the iOS app Hipstamatic

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Canon Powershot G7x Mark II Review - A Great Point-and-Shoot Camera

I absolutely love tech. And I drool every time a new gadget is announced, especially from the brands that I already love and adore.

However, not all models make me want to vote with my wallet. For example, I loved the iPhone from the very start but the first ones didn't really strike my fancy enough to make me own them. So, my first iPhone is the iPhone 4. The same is true for the iPad; my first one is the iPad 4th Gen.

And the same is true for cameras.

When the Canon Powershot G7x Mark II came out, I was greatly impressed by it. And almost immediately, I decided that I should have that camera.

Long story short, I got the camera for my birthday. And immediately after opening the box, I got very much impressed.

There isn't a Canon camera that I haven't been impressed with when it comes to its construction. And in this regard, the G7x Mark II didn't disappoint. The build quality is top-notch and there are no creaking parts. The camera just feels really solid.

As far as buttons and knobs are concerned this camera didn't disappoint! There are a lot of them. And this camera, as far as buttons and knobs are concerned, will give a lot of advanced compacts a run for their money. I also love the fact that I don't need to dig through the menus just to go through a particular setting.

When you switch on the camera, the lens barrel goes out and it shows the massive lens in front. If you have ever used a typical point-and-shoot camera and you switch into this, you will be greatly surprised by the size of the front lens. The reason for the size of this front element is because the Canon G7x Mark II, like its predecessor, uses a 1-inch sensor, something that all smartphones can only dream about.

And if you are not yet impressed by that, then I hope the 4.2x zoom will. The camera zoom ranges from a wide 24mm to an impressive 100mm (35mm-sensor equivalent). Even Canon's closest competition has a zoom range from 24-70mm only. Surprisingly, the change in length of the barrel from 24mm to 100mm is really not much. The maximum aperture is 1.8 at the wide end and 2.8 at the telephoto end.

Around the lens is a ring the function of which is customizable. For my usage, I set it to change the zoom of the lens. And there is a flick switch at the lower left of the ring if you are looking at the lens straight on. This switch will toggle the ring to have step changes or smooth changes. The latter is important when you shoot videos because, if you are on "step" mode, the noise produced by the ring will be heard in your videos.

Going to the back of the camera, you find a touch screen that tilts 180-degrees up and 45-degrees down. You can set the camera to shoot photos when you touch the screen, but I'm a little old-school and I still prefer to shoot using the actual shutter release button. And yes, the 180-degree tilting screen is perfect for selfies!

At the top of the camera is the built-in flash. It's on the smallish side, but you really can't expect much from a camera of this size. However, you can tilt the flash up so you can bounce its light, though I really don't know if that will help.

Looking at the camera head-on, on the left side, you will find an HDMI port and a USB port. You can connect an HDMI cable to project your media to, say a television. And that USB port? You can use that to download stills and videos to your computer.

But wait! You can also use the USB port to charge the replaceable battery! Yes! You can charge the camera directly from a wall outlet or the battery pack that you already have for your smartphone! However, I cannot charge the camera when I plug the other end of the USB cable to a computer. The camera enters the "data transfer" mode and the camera is not being charged...

Also you cannot use the camera when it is connected to a power source, which is a let down... That means you cannot use the camera, for example, if you want to shoot videos with it for hours. Yes, that's a big let down... The only thing you can do when the camera is being charged is to look at images.

But what is great with Canon is they still included an external battery charger. So this means if you have an extra battery, like I do, you can charge at least two batteries at the same time: the one in the camera via USB and the extra one using the external battery charger. I just wished that Canon designed the external charger to have a USB port too, so that you will not need to bring an extra wall charger if you want to charge the camera directly.

And to finish off the physical aspect of the camera, I should say that the G7x Mark II has the best thumb rest and finger grip in this line of cameras! The thumb rest is big enough so that my thumb does not spill to the touch screen. And the finger grip here is actually much better than the one on the Canon Eos M3!

As far as photos are concerned, the Canon G7x Mark II doesn't disappoint. It is the first Canon camera to use the company's latest processor, the Digic7 chip. With this, handling of low-light situations are improved, as well as the speed with which the camera can capture images. With this chip, the G7x Mark II can capture photos at a burst speed of 8 frames per second! No, it is not a replacement for the Canon Eos 7D line but for people with very energetic kids, the G7x Mark II will be a big help. I was even able to capture motorcycle demos one time.

The camera also has improved autofocus speed compared to the Mark I. With this camera, I was able to photograph motorcyclists and the camera didn't lose focus the whole time. Even in very low lit situations.

There is a new time lapse movie capture and when I found this capability, I almost shed a tear. Finally, Canon! Thank you!

However, panorama is still missing in action...

There is a built-in wifi and NFC antennas so, if you use an Android phone and if you have the Canon app in it, then just tapping the phone to the NFC antenna will open up the application. As I use an iPhone, I have to open the app itself instead of it being automatic. However, after those differences, the app on both systems function the same. With the app, you can browse images in the camera, use the smartphone as a viewfinder for remote shooting, and geotag your photos. Sadly, GPS is not built into the camera so you will have to use the GPS inside your smartphone. I wonder why Canon didn't just put a GPS antenna inside... It's a minor inconvenience, but an inconvenience nonetheless...

An aside, this is how you geotag photos in all the Canon cameras I have tried so far.

  1. Open the Canon app, go to "Location Information" and click "Begin Logging"
  2. The app is not the most stable of apps, well, as far as the iOS version is concerned. So, there are times when I re-open the app and I find that the app has stopped logging GPS coordinates. This is a pain because I would have some photos that are not geolocated! I don't know what causes the geolocation to close; even if it is the front most app open the geolocation just quits. So, I end up checking if it's still running about every five minutes. Yes, an inconvenience...
  3. After you shoot, you go to the settings of you smartphone then pick the camera as the wifi router.
  4. Once the phone and the camera are connected, go back to the Canon app and the app will ask you if you want to geotag the photos. Click yes, of course.
  5. You can either transfer the photos via wifi, the easier solution since you are already connected to the camera anyway, or, you pull out the SD card and use the lightning-to-SD card reader for iOS (if you have it). I prefer this second, more cumbersome route. Why?
  6. It turns out if you transfer the photos via wifi, the geotagging in the photos disappear!!! No kidding! I transferred the photos twice, once via the SD card reader, the other via wifi. On my iPad I have two versions of the same photos one version geotagged, the other not. I don't know if Canon knows of this but I hope they get to read this if not.

Canon seriously needs to do something about the smartphone app...

Using your smartphone, you can also set the camera to "Bulb Mode". With this, you can expose for your photos up to more than four minutes, so long exposure photography will also be available for you.

The RAW photos are great and they are huge in size since the camera shoots at 20 megapixels. There are a lot of details in the photos and the camera is really good at handling mixed lighting scenarios like strongly backlit sceneries.

JPEG is no slouch either. Most of the time, I only shoot JPEGs and I have been greatly impressed by it. I love the color reproduction of this camera and the Digic7 chip and the 1.8 maximum aperture also means less noise in photos, even in low light. These two alone are enough for me to jump to the G7x Mark II bandwagon.

And I also love the built-in ND filter. If you have not used one before, then I suggest you try it out. The ND-filter is the difference between having a bland panning shot and a great panning shot. And what's more, you can set the ND filter to auto, so, you can use a big aperture for that creamy bokeh even in a well-lit environment.

ND filter was switched off

ND filter was switched on
There is video capture also and you have several choices, like the aforementioned time lapse, standard and full manual. With full manual, you can change the aperture, shutter speed and ISO while you are recording! You can even change the zoom of the lens while recording. Also, you can use the touch screen to change the focus point of your video.

However, I still am baffled by the fact that Canon has not included 4K video capture in the G7x Mark II. It is 2016 already and I feel that cameras, all cameras, must provide this as an option. I am not particularly bothered by its omission but some customers might be turned off by its absence.

All-in-all, I love the new Canon Powershot G7x Mark II. It's a worthy upgrade to the Mark I and, this time around, I feel that it is a worthy replacement to my aging Canon Powershot G15. The great build quality, the big sensor, the big maximum aperture, and the lovely photos, among other things, make this a compelling camera to have for those who want to have the portability of a point-and-shoot but the full manual capability of a DSLR.

The Canon Powershot G7x Mark II is Highly Recommended!

Photos of the Powershot G7x Mark II shot with an iPhone 6s+ using the iOS app VSCO. All photos made using the Canon Powershot G7x Mark II were not altered except for cropping.


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