A random Weblog


Qantas vs Emirates A380 Business Class
March 26, 2016, 12:01 pm
Filed under: Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This column is a reflection of my experiences flying Business Class on two A380’s.  The first flight was Sydney to London on Qantas, and the return a few days later from London to Sydney was with Emirates.  How did they compare, which was the better experience?

BOARDING

The A380 allows for a separate airbridge to service upstairs, so with passengers entering by different floors boarding is a smooth experience free of congestion (unlike the gate area in Sydney, which is hopeless with airport ownership failing to invest adequately in facilities for these bigger aircraft. They will say it’s OK, that’s simply not true – from Seoul to Dubai, from London to LA, Sydney airport is shown up for the shoddy dump that it is when it comes to boarding one of these larger aircraft – actually any international flight for that matter – zero sense of occasion with low ceilings, a lack of windows, narrow passageways, major congestion at the gate – and so on – so it’s a relief just to get on board and be out of that horrible terminal).

One airbridge for First Class   (front), one for Economy, and upper one for Business Class and Premium Economy

One airbridge for First Class (front), one for Economy, and upper one for Business Class and Premium Economy

Despite this, Qantas do their level best to expedite boarding.  Likewise, on the return, Emirates made the boarding process fairly quick – Heathrow can be patchy, but you get the sense they are trying hard.  Female staff on Emirates wear their traditional hat and scarf during the boarding process, but before takeoff these were stowed in the interests of practicality.  Re-boarding from the (massive) Business lounge in Dubai is a treat with dedicated gate access in the lounge and an elevator that drops you right at the airbridge. Sensible terminal design that further separates the experience from Sydney’s lacklustre offer.

Surprisingly one of the QF attendants chewed gum all though the initial boarding process and briefing. Did it matter?  Well put it this way, it looked a bit “don’t care” and you’d never see that on Emirates (he also looked incredibly red-eyed, perhaps suffering a lack of sleep)

CABIN LAYOUT AND SEATS

Both carriers house Business Class upstairs on the A380, and according to the website Seat Expert, QF has 72 business seats arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration for six seats per row  (the balance of the top floor comprises 26 Premium Economy seats situated behind Business Class).  Meantime, EK has 78 business seats largely arranged 1-2-1 for four seats per row (the balance of the floor being 12 First Class seats up front and a bar at the rear).  On paper, the four seat row layout makes EK look the winner right?  Not so (more on that below)

The  Emirates plane boasts a bar at the rear of the cabin.  This seems like a curious use of precious floor space, and no doubt accounts for the more crammed nature of the seating area as they’ve had to squash things up to create the bar space.  If you’re travelling with a partner or work colleague, this area could be fun – but each time I wandered through it seemed to have a few zombie-like passengers awkwardly glancing at one another – in fact it was all a bit weird. Curiously the four toilets for Business Class are behind the bar – two in each corridor, and the poor crew have to walk through these to get to the galley.  This must be annoying for the crew as every single visit to/from the busy galley requires walking past the toilets and through the bar to get to the cabin.  I guess on the upside passengers waiting for a free toilet tend to wait in the bar area and not the corridor, but it didn’t seem the optimum design to me.

Qantas – The Mark Newson designed business seat is a winner (mostly).  No surprise John Ivy at Apple has drawn Newson into his think-tank, this Australian designer has a knack for combining style and functionality. The half-eggshell seat back is highly effective.  The cabin looks neat, the passenger has some additional privacy, and legroom is exceptional. The number one (yes NUMBER ONE) requirement when you pay for business class is a 100% lie flat bed, not a slight angle, but truly flat.  Check, no issue with QF – the seat unpacks into a fairly smooth base and the added “mattress liner” and thick blanket make for a good sleeping experience.  Headphones plug into a socket near your shoulder, whereas on EK the cord plugs into the area by the TV screen on the seat in front – effectively making the cord easier to tangle with.

QF sleeping space

QF sleeping space

Emirates – the four across layout should provide more space than the six across QF layout, but the impression is of low-rise clutter.  The cabin looks busy and messy, and as with most of the Middle-Eastern carriers, the layout has hints of an ostentatious yacht – e.g. plastic walnut, plastic chrome, brass and so on.  There’s nothing stylish about it at all.  But it is functional.  The seat felt narrower than QF (not sure it is, just the perception), and as the seats are much closer together there is a feeling of squeeze that isn’t there with QF. For example, on the window side, the overlap nature of the seats leaves quite a narrow gap to walk through to get to your seat – it’s fine, but it feels almost claustrophobic compared to the openness of the QF layout. Having said that, the EK layout sees your legs entering a cut-out space under the seat in front, so lie flat is fine on this carrier too – think of it as slightly overlapping passengers offset for space, whereas with QF there is a small gap between your toes and the seat in front of you.  Also, the EK seat while flat, felt slightly lumpier as the various bits unfolded to make a bed.  A thinner blanket in EK, so at one stage I felt quite cold.

EK sleeping space

EK sleeping space

Verdict – the QF cabin is, to my eye, considerably nicer – just no contest really.  The bed functionality is superior on QF too.  Winner Qantas.

AMENITIES PACK

Both carriers provide noise cancelling headphones and a basic necessities pack – the #1 item being a toothbrush, and of course both supply this along with eye shade, socks, etc

Qantas – the QF pack includes ear plugs, and for long sectors like this, pyjamas are provided.  I hope that QF don’t ever cut this, it’s seriously good and enhances the sleeping experience no end – plus it is so good to change back into your relatively unruffled clothes toward the end of the flight. The QF supplied bag is the classier of the two for re-use post flight. (I keep these for things like power chargers and USB keys)

Emirates – nice consideration in the mens pack to supply a razor and shaving cream.

Verdict – thanks to the PJ’s, Qantas is the winner.

MENU

Both carriers make an effort to provide a range of food and drinks – supplemented by on-demand snacks and the likes.  Both carriers noted on their menus that none of the food included alcohol or pork in the ingredients.

Qantas – a nicely printed contemporary design. The Alex Perry menu delivered some excellent choices. Qantas offer an online option to pre-select your meals before departure, but I’ve never felt the urge to decide pre-flight.

Emirates – the menu card is not as modern, but there are adequate choices and variety.  Snacking choices via the bar – however they’re not particularly compelling (small cakes and sweets, wraps and peanuts etc).  Meal service was good though, very smooth and professional – and the cappuccino was pretty good too. Also, the dining table is sturdy when unfolded, quite a good design.

Verdict: I found the QF food and wine more to my liking but the food on EK was very tasty and well presented. Line ball really.

ENTERTAINMENT

Long distance flight and a wide movie selection go hand in hand.  Neither carrier suffers for choice.

Qantas – sadly there’s too much poking at menus to get up and down the hierarchy of choice, and the sense of frustration is compounded by a slow OS.  Nothing fingertip-fast like we get with our mobile devices, and for better or worse that is the passenger expectation.  Premiere movie choices were good (there was a time when QF seemed stingy in the range of new movies, but it feels better now).  The seat based screen rises from the armrest, and this means it needs to be stowed for take off and landing.  On the A380 that means you can’t view the external cameras at those interesting parts of the flight – as you can for carriers where the video screen can be viewed gate to gate.  Menu operation is via tap screen (easy as the screen is well within reach), or via the corded handset.

Emirates – the airline is proud of it’s ICE system (Information, Communication, Entertainment), and fair enough too as there’s a wide and deep library of choice. The OS is not iPhone fast, but it’s a lot quicker than the QF system, and it seemed easier to navigate back to the home screen or chapter heading.  Emirates also has a function where you can favourite movies or TV shows as you browse, then click the faves icon to see those selections as a filtered list. Super smart and genuinely handy.  Emirates had a wireless remote with its own touch screen to save leaning all the way forward to tap the main TV screen, this worked well but it was surprisingly heavy.

Verdict: A win for Emirates thanks to a vast library and faster OS, plus gate to gate use of the screen.

OTHER

Qantas send the Purser around to talk to each Business Class passenger.  Armed with iPad detailing the passenger loading, he’s able to discuss your routing and update you on connection or arrival details. It’s a nice touch and comes across as a personal touch.

Soon after boarding the Emirates flight an attendant greeted me and asked if I had flown with them before. When I said no, she then took me through the seat controls, amenities, personal bar, and entertainment.  It was a great orientation and done in a friendly manner

EK bar

EK bar

As noted EK has a bar.  Yeah, good for them. 

EK also provides Business Class passengers with a Limo service. I found this so-so in Sydney with the driver asking me to wait for another passenger heading home in a similar direction to me.  After a long flight from London I wasn’t in the mood to wait and was about to head to the taxi’s when the other guy showed up so we ended up sharing the car.

I think Qantas no longer route cabin crew any further than Dubai, so the sector from Dubai to London is crewed by London based staff. That makes good economic sense as they’re not putting the entire crew in London hotels (since they go home), and that must save a lot of money.  But the result was a crew that sounded entirely British – either because they were UK citizens, or had simply acquired the accent.  The plane therefore sounded like a BA service over a QF one.  Of course it doesn’t matter at all – and Emirates would agree, with some 22 nationalities in their cabin crew on my flight wth them – but it was an interesting change from a plane full of Aussie accented crew as heard from Sydney to Dubai.

THE VERDICT

Having flown the same SYD > LHR > SYD route on the Etihad A380 Business Class recently (and the Singapore Airlines A380 Business to London the year before), it’s tempting to factor those two carriers into this comparison, but I’ll leave this review to code-share partners QF and EK (suffice to say Etihad gets the nod over Emirates IMO, although Etihad meal service was “at your request” which if you didn’t know meant you didn’t eat!, and Singapore Airlines surely has the widest Business Class seat of the lot, it’s impressive and adds to the comfort)

Of these two airlines, if I was booking tomorrow I’d lean toward the Qantas Business Product.  The cabin is much nicer, there’s more sense of space, plus the bed/sleeping experience is superior.  But it’s splitting hairs, as there’s little to fault with Emirates Business product – they do a great job and took good care of me. Can’t ask for more than that…

And if you read this far, here’s a cockpit  view showing an Emirates A380 landing in Dubai.



2015 Mercedes C-Class vs. BMW 428i Gran Coupe – a tale of two cities
October 6, 2014, 11:27 am
Filed under: cars, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

It was time to sell my Mercedes C-Class, and the launch of the new 2015 C-Class seemed like a logical upgrade.  But it didn’t turn out that way. Having had two Mercedes cars over 15 years, I ended up choosing a BMW 428i Gran Coupe instead of the new C-Class as my next car. Here’s why…

The 2015 C-Class is without doubt a thing of beauty, it ticks a lot of boxes at face-value, so like many potential buyers I dived into some in-store and online research. If you do a few Google searches you’ll find dozens of sites with lazy reviews – which is not Mercedes fault, but it’s off-putting (re-hashed press releases dominate sites – and you quickly find the majority of sites refer to the new C-Class as “a baby S-Class”. This is hardly the stuff of review, it’s one person’s interesting observation parroted a thousand times without original thought).  Amongst those who drove it, you’ll also find fans of the new (optional) air suspension, and detractors – proving the only proof is to test drive it for yourself.

The new Mercedes C-Class, jam packed with innovative technology

The new Mercedes C-Class, jam packed with innovative technology

But do a bit more digging online, and you’ll get past the cut-had-paste bloggers and through to the reviewers who know their stuff. Practical drivers with a sense of the how to report handling and drive – and not just talk about the admittedly clever (class leading) technology in the car.  During my first test drive – in the C200 – I was surprised that the car seemed to suddenly rev as it placed itself in the wrong gear for a short while.  And the engine was OK, but the modest torque was not for me.  A few days later I drove the C250 Diesel.  While the torque was great, the noise was surprising. We all know that a diesel engine can chatter at times, but this was intrusive IMO.  I’m not sure if the Diesel C-Class vehicles supplied to Australia contain the Renault Diesel engine that some of the Brit cars get, and I doubt Mercedes would promote this if it does, but one thing was very evident – whoever made that particular Diesel engine, they sure made a noisy one.  Sadly the C250 also did a bit of a gear-hunt at one stage. My caution levels were rising.

There’s no doubt the C-Class interior is impressive however, and the only thing I could fault was that the Nav screen looks like an iPad was slapped on at the last minute as it’s very prominent.  It also feels fractionally too far forward as I would have preferred it set-back a few cm.  But that’s a personal taste thing, I’m sure most people will like it.  I didn’t get to see how the move to Garmin maps played out in detail, but having long learnt not to trust the very ordinary directions delivered by the Becker maps in my previous C-Class, I figured any upgrade would be a good thing.  Sadly the old Mercedes Command menus (which look like a DOS-era computer screen to me) are soon found again as you get past the initial high-quality pages of the new system.  I read that Mercedes has delayed it’s introduction of Apple’s in-car system, so perhaps they had to shoehorn bits of the old into the new – because that’s what it feels like, and that’s a shame as they have not been competitive in this area, and still aren’t.  But I will give a nod in the direction of Garmin, seriously good to see the Becker system on the way out.

Immaculate C-Class interior. Notice the clean lines thanks to moving gear stick from centre console to a wand on steering column. And a long-time Mercedes visual benefit - no handbrake in centre console (it auto disengages as you drive off, and is applied by a small lever on lower dash)

Immaculate C-Class interior. Notice the clean lines thanks to moving gear stick from centre console to a wand on steering column. And a long-time Mercedes visual benefit – no handbrake in centre console (it auto disengages as you drive off, and is applied by a small lever on lower dash)

So, after a couple of drives, lots of reading, discussions with sales people, and a visit to one of the launch events I decided I needed to consider other options.  The Audi A4 is due for a major update, but is sometime from reveal let alone showrooms.  I flirted with the Audi Q5 briefly, but decided an SUV wasn’t for me.  Lexus got a quick look, but I soon moved on (the IS300h does have an impressive spec though).  A couple of visits to BMW had me interested in the Three Series, but I just couldn’t – it seemed dated after sitting in the new C-Class.  Then I took it for a test drive.  Wow!  The 328i’s engine is roughly comparable to the C250 petrol Mercedes, but on paper a better performer as they’re getting torque across more rev range and slightly more horsepower. And if you can find a bad review for the eight speed auto it might be a first. In fact I found many glowing reviews for this transmission, and I have to agree – unlike the two C-Class cars I drove, the BMW was always in the right gear at the right time, and with this engine the car leapt away nicely when you put your foot down.

A friend suggested I check out the 428i Gran Coupe. Now here was a car that just looked great to my eye.  Coupe good looks, but with rear doors and a lift back in place of boot.  Where the three series is due for a facelift in 2015, the 4 series is fairly new – and the Gran Coupe pretty much brand new (you can see some DNA to the jaw-dropping Six Series Gran Coupe too – a nice family line coming through here)

Showing some design DNA from the 640i Gran Coupe, BMW's 428i Gran Coupe is a particularly good looking car

Showing some design DNA from the 640i Gran Coupe, BMW’s 428i Gran Coupe is a particularly good looking car

Inside the 328i was clean and tidy. Likewise the 428i. But that’s about it. It’s otherwise plain, storage is lacking, the lid on the cup-holder actually lifts right off (now what?) rather than flipping up or retracting – truly mad design.  Like many cars there is no seat memory for the passenger seat.  This must be what, a $10 chip and a $5 button?  Shame on BMW for this – and credit to Mercedes for finally adding it to the C-Class as standard. The front parking sensors need to be manually reactivated when you need them (WTF?), the brake lever feels 1950 after the Mercs elegant solution (for years Mercedes have had a great foot brake – but the new C-Class has a cool electronic park brake), the gear stick is OK, but the centre console area feels slightly cluttered after playing with the Merc’s gear wand on the steering column, the speed Limiter seems to do nothing apart from flash a light (the C-’s limiter is active, and has saved my license more than once).  The BMW’s sunroof is no match for the Merc’s elegant Panorama rook, Thanks to no visible handbrake or gearstick in the centre console, the Merc interior is clean and contemporary. The BMW is (by comparison) a little uninspiring.  But hey, maybe the handbrake position is handy for brake slides?!

Nice, but not as elegant as the new C-Class. Note the hand-break looking old compared to the C-Class

Nice, but not as elegant as the new C-Class. Note the hand-break on the centre console, which looks old compared to the C-Class

The BMW 428i that I purchased lacks half the technology the C-Class comes with standard – even after ticking several options on the BMW.  It has the “issues” mentioned above, but the iDrive system is a thing of pure joy to use (take note Mercedes, this is how you do it).  Best of all though, the engine and gearbox are in harmony, they absolutely sing together and funnily enough thats kind of important for a car🙂  So impressed by the dive, this car became the car of choice for me.  Ride and handling in the 428i is very good – the wheelbase is slightly wider than the three series and I sense this adds to the sense of stability.  All up, it feels secure and is pure fun to drive – and like the new C-Class, offers adaptive suspension for further fine-tuning to suit your needs.

Honestly both cars are wonderful choices and you could be happy with either of them.  The new C-Class is likely to win dozens of awards and continue to lead the segment in this country.  It’s a big step forward for Mercedes and seriously throws the gauntlet down.  Except for the engine. And gearbox. And navigation. And looks (IMO the 428i Gran Coupe is second only to the 640 Gran Coupe in the entire BMW range at the moment).

But the main thing that swayed me against the new C-Class was the high cost of service with this brand – and not just routine services.  I’d had two significant (expensive) service issues in the last six years.  For the investment, it’s not something I was comfortable with.  My feeling for the Mercedes brand was tarnished with twice having to tow my car to the dealers after the immobiliser failed to unlock (one of these being very expensive thanks to a complex towing requirement from where it was parked).  I know any car can have a bad day, they are mechanical after all, but it had become a nagging doubt as to long term reliability for me.  Especially as another Merc owner I know of had several grands worth of engine repairs seven years in – it seemed to paint a warning picture to me, and felt like it was time to get out (another friend reminded me that maybe this is not so unusual – he said there’s a saying that goes “If you can’t afford a new Mercedes, you certainly can’t afford a used one”).  I’m sure others could point to a reverse version of this story with a heroic track record in a Merc and a lumpy run in another marque – but this stuff is all about personal perception, and mine was now framed by my experiences

C-Class dash

C-Class dash

428i Dash

428i Dash

So now I’m learning to in’s and out’s of my new BMW.  It’s early days and I still drop my right hand ready to release the handbrake under the dash, but that kind of muscle memory will soon fade.  I’m noticing even more things I like now, for example the dashboard looks like a car dash – not a toy.  The connected apps are clever – finding an address on my phone or computer and pushing it to the car is fantastic.  Giving Pandora tracks the thumbs-up or thumbs-down on iDrive is perfect.  Remote lights flash in a carpark is actually handy (the horn option is sadly muted in Australia).  Best of all, the driving experience is exactly what I wanted – pure pleasure.  There are a couple of options I wish I’d gone for, things that are standard on the new C-Class too, but that engine, that gearbox. Really, I’m more than spoilt.

Lastly, if you’re in the market for either car (or similar), don’t overlook the head-up-display (HUD).  So handy, and definitely a safety enhancement as it projects speed and navigation directions in front of you meaning you don’t need to take your eyes off the road (both cars have a raft of other active and passive safety features – and the HUD is normally promoted for convenience, but I’d say it plays a role in safety too)

I plan to update this post in a couple of months when I’ve got some more k’s on the clock. (DONE – Scroll down)

Another view of the BMW 428i Gran Coupe

Another view of the BMW 428i Gran Coupe

 

BMW's 640i Gran Coupe - the 428i Gran Coupe seems to be drawn from this cars elegant lines

BMW’s 640i Gran Coupe – the 428i Gran Coupe seems to be drawn from this cars elegant lines

 

UPDATE: Two months in…

After 2500 km of city driving and four lengthy freeway drives, it’s time to update my thoughts;

  • The C-Class (as predicted) has won Car of the year. Well deserved with the way it has raised the bar in the segment.  But I have no regrets, no buyers remorse, as I am loving the BMW.
  • My concern with the handbrake placement has turned out to be a non-issue. Maybe there’s a cosmetic argument, but no concerns in use or performance.
  • The Head Up Display is fantastic (Mercedes has this too). What a great innovation, surely something to trickle down to more cars. It is a genuine safety aid, bring it on.
  • I was worried the BMW interior would seem lame compared to the luxe of the new C-Class. Not so, the striking red leather seats and dash, accented with black and aluminium look fantastic. Wood grain belongs on the dining room table not in a car – such a daggy dated look to put wood grain inside a car.  When I look back at the interior of the new C-Class I’m now preferring my BMW interior – I know this is in part due to “getting to know it”, but I think my initial concern was misplaced.
  • The BMW is ALWAYS in the right gear at the right time.  The eight-speed auto is sublime, absolute magic.
  • The Mercedes has better execution of the hill start brake, front parking sensors and speed limiter (the BMW has these, but not as well implemented IMO)
  • The Mercedes has a seat memory function for the front passenger seat. Given the BMW has the electric controls, but lacks a $5 memory chip this is a cheap and hopelessly accountant-driven omission by BMW.
  • The lack of a sync button for air-con in the BMW is another omission that I can’t get my head around. Mercs and other cars have had these for over a decade. If I’m the sole occupant, I want the air on both sides at 18 degrees, not one at 18 and one 19.5 or whatever. $10 BMW, that’s all it would cost per car to deliver this. It’s a software script and a plastic button, and for a company that promotes its engineering prowess it’s an omission that just looks cheap and stupid. My feeling is that the Merc’s air-con is colder than the BMW – handy for Merc drivers here in Austaralia
  • The BMW’s iDrive system is light years ahead of the Mercedes navigation/entertainment offer (this is not to be glossed over, it’s something I use most days and the improvement is a major benefit to me)
  • The BMW has (IMO) a significantly better engine and gearbox. Game, set, and match right there.
  • I regularly get to drive a 2014 E-Class Mercedes.  It’s a nice pleasant drive, but by comparison my BMW is engaging, involving and eagerly anticipated.  The Mercedes gets me form A to B efficiently. The BMW does the same, but with a connection or feel that makes it much more enjoyable. It’s hard to describe, but one car is like a quality functional tool, and the other is an emotive experience. And that wraps it up, the BMW was definitely the right choice for me.

Update – just over a year in….

  • Of the points mentioned at the two-month update, the auto rain wipers and hill start brake are the most annoying
  • Two minor faults fixed under warranty (tilt on passenger wing mirror when in reverse failed, and passenger right hand door developed a rattle – which Google tells me is not exactly rare for BMW’s)
  • Merc air-con definitely much cooler
  • I take the elegant BMW dash for granted now, but seeing modern Mercs up close their dash looks toy-town and cartoonish by comparison
  • STILL loving the driving experience, it’s brilliant.


I lost my Jawbone Up24
April 4, 2014, 1:45 pm
Filed under: Technology | Tags: , , , , ,

I did it again

After my 48-hour kill on my Withings Pulse fitness tracker, I did some more research and purchased the Jawbone Up24 wrist band.  But somehow I lost it within two weeks😦

Of course I didn’t notice at the time that it came off, but I knew as soon as I got home that it was missing. Very annoying – and this is getting expensive.

In the time I had it though, it proved surprisingly good as the info from the app does motivate actions. E.g. I tried getting to bed earlier, walking during the office day, and so on.  The app is mature and works well, the device is simple and OK in use – but as it only wraps around your wrist and does not fasten like a watch, it is susceptible to being hooked on something and coming off.  Does this mean I now go for the Fitbit Force or something as my next choice?  Meh, no I’ve wasted enough on these wearables.

But for this experience, the Jawbone was pretty good. The low-power bluetooth allows for easy syncing to the app, and it only needs to be charged every 5 to 7 days (I only got to charge it twice before I lost it – but it seemed to run a while on a single charge).  One part of the app I really liked was the sleep analysis, it made me think about sleep in a new way – and my daily goal of 10,000 steps was motivating.

A good device, works well. Nice app. Easy to use. BUT, either my bad luck or a weakness in the design as it sure didn’t take long for mine to go missing…

 

Jawbone Up24

Jawbone Up24

 

 



The Rialto 400 and Sonos Connect – a near perfect marriage.

Sonos owners know that the Sonos Connect is the tool to plug into your existing hifi.  Basically it absorbs the Sonos audio (wirelessly or via Ethernet) and sends it into your existing stereo – voilà, a simple and effective way to extend your Sonos system and use the good equipment you’ve already invested in.

Sonos describe the Connect as follows:

Turn your stereo or home theatre into a music streaming system

  • Stream all the music on earth to your stereo
  • Wireless, easy to set up music player
  • Play alone, or link to other Sonos music players in your home
  • Control from anywhere with your smart phone or tablet

They also have the Sonos Connect Amp which (surprise surprise) includes a built-in amp, so all you need to do is add your own speakers.  But my guess is that the Connect is likely more appealing as a lot of us own existing stereo’s.

So, a Connect entered my life.

In mere moments the easy set-up that Sonos is famous for had things up and running.  And the sound? Well it was good but not super great.  Nevertheless, it was a welcome addition to my system.

Sonos users know that turning the devices on and off is simply a matter of starting or stopping the music via the app on their phone or tablet – but with the Connect there’s the added step of turning on your amp (and turning it off when done).  It’s not a problem, but strangely clunky when the rest of the system is so seamless.

This led me to do some more research – and in doing this I came across the Rialto 400 – an integrated amp from a company called Audio Control. The Rialto 400 is designed to partner with Sonos and it includes input triggers that allow it to start and enter standby based on whether it’s getting a signal from the Connect or not.  Perfect, now the home stereo replicates the behaviour of the entire system (i.e on/off via the Sonos app)

Image

Better still, the Rialto packs some serious pedigree inside.  From the AudioControl web site:

The AudioControl Rialto 400, is a compact, high-powered amplifier with a built-in audiophile-grade DAC (digital to analog converter) designed specifically to provide greater performance and higher sound quality for all analog and digital systems, including Sonos® home entertainment systems.

The Rialto 400’s amplifier delivers over 100 watts of power per channel into 8 ohms and 200 watts per channel into 4 ohm loads. Features a built-in high-performance Wolfson® DAC that drastically improves audio quality, digital and analog audio-systems can perform with better speakers across the home. This choice of an audiophile-quality DAC allows connected digital audio sources such as Apple TV, Pandora® and Spotify® to provide higher quality acoustics with clearer, more accurate analog signals during playback.

Image

Introducing the Rialto was no placebo, I could immediately hear an improvement over my prior amp – so this enthused me to keep looking at ways to tweak things some more.  FYI,  the DAC in the Rialto will take 44.1-192k with the only exception being 176.4, which Wolfson specifically states is not supported (a very uncommon sample rate).

A friend told me about his “Cullen Modified Sonos Connect”, so he brought it over to try with my Rialto.  Once again, a positive step that was particularly noticeable when I was playing music off my NAS.

The Cullen Mod is described as follows:

This version of the Connect has been modified to improve sound quality, using Rick Cullen’s modifications – this is achieved by re-clocking the digital data and upsampling it and thereby both reducing jitter markedly and offering higher resolution. This of course results in smoother texture in the high frequencies, better definition overall, and more spacious soundstage – in short a more complete and improved rendition of everything! Provided you’re using a good DAC, and feeding it from the coaxial output of the Cullen, you’re going to get extremely good sound

So, with a Cullen Modified Connect, partnered with the Rialto 400, you’re really getting some impressive quality out of a Sonos system.  I was convinced enough to replace my Connect with the Cullen version – and a final tweak may be to wire it to the Sonos Bridge via Ethernet, as I’m getting the odd audio drop out and I’m sure it’s related to the wireless.  At first I thought it was the Rialto overheating (I have it inside a cabinet, but it’s pretty well ventilated in there and doesn’t get overly warm)

All up, I’ve become a Sonos fanboy thanks to the easy set up, quality experience, and shockingly huge range of music options (even the alarm function is awesome – waking to new audio sources every day of the week is great) but now the Cullen modified Connect coupled with the Rialto 400 have raised the bar to a level I wasn’t anticipating – as a bit of a hifi nut I feel I have achieved a lot here.  I’m sure a higher bandwidth system such as those offered by Naim or Linn (and others) would sound better, but the Sonos app and it’s connections to the outside world of music trump any arguments about the finer points in top few percent of the signal. Right now my system is blasting me with some quality audio – in fact our house has heard more music in the last month than in the last two years.  A Sonos system will do that to you.

If you’re in the market for a wireless music system you have a number of choices. I opted NOT to use Airplay or Wifi for many reasons, and I’m pleased about that – but the secret sauce with Sonos is their app and it’s offerings.  And if you’re an audio junkie, it will allow you to add folders from a NAS (and even if not, you can still point the app to your iTunes library as another source).

If you already own a Sonos, think about the Cullen Modified Connect and the Rialto 400 amp.  For me, money happily spent – this has been, and continues to be, incredibly enjoyable, it has made a significant difference in the house – what’s not to like about that?



I killed my Withings Pulse in less than 48 hours (a review of the Withings Pulse)

Warning.  If you buy one of these puppies, TAKE CARE.  It’s so small I temporarily misplaced mine twice. Then I accidentally put it in with my laundry and killed it.  

I hadn’t even owned it two days and it was over and done with😦

withings-pulse

But if you’re not as stupid as me, what can you expect?  Well this is a great little invention.  I purchased mine from Household Technologies in Australia, a local Withings agent.  At $129 (with free shipping), this diminutive device is good value – so long as you don’t kill it like it i did.

What does it do?  Well it tracks a range of your activities – including:

  • Steps taken
  • Altitude gained/lost
  • Running (kicks in after 60 seconds of running, proved quite accurate on my Sunday run)
  • Heart rate measurement via a touch screen on the rear
  • Sleep quality measurement (putting the pulse into a watch-like strap and setting the appropriate mode on the device)

The device has a basic touch screen where you can slide your finger to review options and make some settings options.  The top button acts as a toggle to cycle through some settings too.

Charged via mini-USB, Withings claim a remarkable two-week battery life, and full credit to Withings for ensuring you can plug that USB into your iPhone charger brick too. Awesome.

Connectivity to the free app on your phone is via Bluetooth.  I found it a little slow to dump the data to the phone, not badly so, but bluetooth has never impressed me so it wasn’t a surprise in the scheme of things.

Screen withings-pulse

The Withings apps is comprehensive and easy to use, the people behind this have clearly put a lot of thought into it.  Set up is easy, and the data is presented in clean interface.

In the short time I owned the Pulse, I really enjoyed using it.  It’s amazing technology in a tiny package.  I only have two gripes;

  1. Unlike Withings Smart Scales (which I use and love), the data does not get pulled into the “My Fitness Pal” app.  I didn’t realize how much I counted on this integration between my scales and the app and was sorry to see it’s absent.  Maybe in a future update?
  2. I think there’s a very high chance you will lose or kill your Pulse – putting it in the wash is all too easy when it’s clipped to your running shorts.  Suggestion – make a bright orange or yellow cover for it.  Black device on black running shorts – disaster.  They could offer a range of colors so you could go for maximum contrast.  Also, what about an optional beep tone toward end or start of day as a sort of alarm if it’s sitting in a bunch of laundry waiting to be washed?  (or just make it waterproof somehow – maybe via inductive charging and a membrane type button.

Will I replace it?  No.  I can guarantee I’ll destroy another one – it’s way too easy, and I bet a lot of people will also learn this the hard way.  I do hope they make it more visible, waterproof, or alarmed.  Until then, I am certain there will be a lot Withings Pulse’s without a Pulse.

UPDATE:  I was sent a quick survey by Withings, along the lines of “You haven’t used your Pulse in a while, what’s up?”  Guessing that’s the case with a lot of these things, in fact I’ll go out on a limb and say over half will be lost or drowned.  So I’m thinking a bracelet model is the only way to go – e.g. Jawbone Up, Nike Fuelband, Fitbit Force (and the last of those three has my attention at the moment)



File Transporter – hey it’s V1
May 2, 2013, 10:11 am
Filed under: Technology | Tags: , ,

Some of the people behind Drobo have gone to start a new business called “Connected Data”.  Their first product is called File Transporter and the simplest description I can give to it is that it’s a DIY version of Dropbox (or a self-hosted version of Dropbox if you like).  From their website they say;

Transporter is a private “off-cloud” storage device for syncing, sharing, accessing, and protecting your digital life. No cloud, no fees, no privacy concerns. Your files are only stored on your Transporters and computers and mobile devices that you authorize.

Access your digital life from any computer or mobile device, back it up, collaborate on it with colleagues, share it with family and friends and sync it across multiple devices. Transporter let’s you do all of that with no monthly fees. It’s 100% private. It’s 100% secure. It’s your digital life.

The idea is you buy this small device (with or without drive – laptop sized, easy to plug in).  Then you can set up folders and add files on the drive and in turn make some of these available to others (and/or access folders on File Transporters belong to others anywhere in the world).  Why? Well as we’ve seen some things die online – Google has closed down 60+ businesses, and frankly if you were relying on some of these you’re left in limbo. Secondly, for journalists, lawyers and others – you don’t really want to put confidential data on someone else’s server (in fact many businesses forbid the use of Box or Dropbox for these kinds of reasons).  Thirdly there’s a potential cost saving if you’re  a heavy user of these cloud services. Lastly, if it’s not on someone else’s sever, well they can’t snoop at it. I think a low risk, but it’s a selling point I guess.

Offices

So, I purchased a File Transporter and it arrived a few days later.  I don’t give a fig about “unboxing experiences”, well at least I thought I didn’t, but this was plain weird, as I opened the box everything spilled out onto my desk as though it had just been dumped in the box.  Kind of the opposite of an Apple experience.  Then I noticed the two stickers that act as seals on the box had been cut. I assumed by the vendor in order to install the 1GB hard drive, so I dropped them a line. Not so they said, it was shipped as it arrived. Hmm, maybe customs opened it, but I swear the outer shipping box was unopened. Oh well, moving right along…

Set up was not incident free. It took some mucking around to get things going – in setting up an account I had to ask the system to re-send the verification email to me as it failed to arrive first time.  However it was soon going and I then set up some folders for three photo-retouchers that I work with.

I then loaded some test files to the fist folder and used the management website to grant folder access to the first retoucher and send a system email to invite her to create an account.  She soon responded that she was having difficulties, but we persevered over a couple of days (major time zone differences slowed our communications down). Eventually she got her account set up but could not see her folder, so once again I had to get the system to re-send the email. Success.  We swapped files just fine, but where it was a near instant upload/download for me, she reported slow speeds akin to dropbox, yousendit etc.  Not a deal-breaker as that’s what we were used to, and at least it was working.

Next I sent some urgent retouching of a different nature to a specialist service I use in Europe. Sadly they had all kinds of problems installing the client, and just before giving up they managed to access their folder of files (however they have since insisted I use wetransfer or yousendit and returned the completed edits via one of these services and not through the share folder as intended).

Lastly, some catalog edits that I have photoshopped in India by a company that does an excellent job with this kind of repetitive edit.  Once again, a headache and they gave up in frustration – as a result we used wetransfer.com and had the work completed and returned without a hitch.

Is this a Fail? Well yes. Certainly not the result I wanted.  But it’s version one, so I’m hoping they’ll make the sign up and access a lot smoother on the next release.  The web portal is where you can add folders and invite collaborators, but there is no way to access or transfer files on the web, that’s a job for your File Manager – good and bad. Good because drag and drop file management is easy, bad because there is no access from a remote computer or kiosk – sure you can log in and see the folder and users, but that seems to be it. Which is not so helpful.

I sent a ticket to their online support, and while I have not heard back on that (apart from the automated acknowledgement) I figure that’s OK as it was more a case of me giving critical feedback than asking for help.

It feels like “three strikes and you’re out” to me.  And no this is not a bandwidth issue, I have some of the fastest bandwidth available in the country – rocking speeds, so there’s simply no congestion as this end.  File Transporter has enormous potential, and I think there is a very real market for a product like this, but for me there was a case of “Version 1” friction here.



Sony RX1 just the ticket
January 2, 2013, 6:42 pm
Filed under: Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Some opening thoughts…

Fujifilm mastered the “sigh-factor” with retro inspired designs that truly look the part – the Fuji X100 debuted a couple of years ago with a fresh (ironically “old”) look that dropped jaws. In due course this was followed by the similarly styled XPro1 and soon after that, the X-E1.  Despite quirks with the cameras, they delivered in spades when it comes to visual appeal.  Sony by contrast, has marched on with a visual style that looks dated next to these Fuji cameras (somewhat ironic given the Fuji design is retro inspired, but it somehow looks “more contemporary”).

On the one hand, none of this matters as frankly I’m more interested in your photos than what your camera looks like.  But, on the other hand, when you slap down some serious cash, it puts an extra spring in your step when the gear looks as delicious as the Fuji X-series does. It makes you want to touch it – and that’s no bad thing. More enjoyment = more shooting. Simple.

There’s a flip side argument though –  using the Fuji’s can attract the attention of the curious, but the Sony RX1 looks so much like a standard little point-and-shoot that it draws zero attention. It’s about as unobtrusive (and quiet) as you can get.

Image

The APS-C sized sensor on the Fugi X-series cameras is a size that has been admired for the increase in sensor real-estate and all the benefits that brings over smaller sensors such as 4/3 and so on (these benefits include reduced noise, shallower DOF for artistic purposes, and better capabilities at higher ISO’s – amongst other things).  However, these benefits are even better with the larger full-frame sensor of the Sony RX1.  It should be noted that Fuji claim their 16 megapixel non-Bayer sensor in the XPro1 is as good as a mid 20’s megapixel bayer sensor in other cameras.  They have a point, the XPro 1’s sensor is remarkable – and the engineers at Fuji deserve accolades for the innovative design they have come up with for this camera.  But Sony know a thing or two about sensors – not only supplying sensors for their own cameras, but pretty much every Nikon DSLR of recent years too.  There’s been a lot of excitement abound the IQ of Sony’s new a99 and RX1 cameras, and pixel peepers will no doubt get their jollies diving into this, but the clear message is that these latest Sony Sensors are stunning.

So, it was with some excitement that I took delivery of an RX1.  While the visual appeal is not as good as the Fuji’s, the sensor and lens promised an awful lot.

Prime vs. future interchangeable.

The RX1 is expensive for a non-interchangeable lens camera, but it’s highly likely that 40 to 50% of the cost is in the lens – and what a remarkable lens it is.  This Zeiss glass is fast, sharp, and incredibly well designed. It extends well inside the body (in fact the internal elements extend very close to the sensor).

Pros

  • No dust or dirty sensor issues as the lens does not come off
  • Clever zoom-like function seems to work quite well
  • Close focusing option via lens ring adjustment (sadly a little too close to the manual focus ring however)
  • Aperture ring on the lens – third-stop detents that are beautiful to use
  • Manual focus capability
  • Fast f2
  • Sharp

Cons

  • No DOF markings on the lens.  (Come on Sony, that would have been simple)
  • Since you can’t change lenses, it pays to protect it with a clear or UV filter
  • Strangely distortion correction is not turned on by default, easily fixed but easily overlooked too

Image

Focus Focus Focus

Like the Sony RX100, and for that matter most every compact, the RX1’s auto-focus is based on Contrast Detection (as opposed to the faster phase detection method found in most DSLR’s).  I’ve been critical of the AF speed of the XPro1 before, so when I recently played with an RX100 in-store I was kind of shocked at how much faster the AF was on this camera.  I actually wondered if it was somehow phase-based as it was so quick.  Checking the specs, it’s using a Contrast Detection approach – and this just underlined to me how very average the focusing speed of the Fuji line is.  Granted I only used the XPro1 under first and second firmware, not the more recent upgrade which I’m told has “improved things somewhat.”  Into this battleground, Olympus boast that their OM-D has “the world’s fastest AF-Speed” (Source: OM-D web site), and right now they probably do.  So in this context I was very keen to see how AF on the RX1 would perform – speed and accuracy matters a great deal to me. And my verdict?  The RX1 is definitely better than the XPro1, focus lock is reasonably quick, but it will hunt if the ambient gets too dim. Overall, I’m getting many more in-focus images than I did with the XPro1.  I find moving the focus point all a bit tedious though – perhaps spoilt by my Nikon gear where I’m doing this all the time without moving the camera from my eye.

Manual focus is much much better than my experience with Fuji’s X100 and XPro1.  Focus Peaking is great and works well (edges can be highlighted when in focus), and other options such as face-detect work quite well even when the lens is wide open.

(Note the Sony a99 has a dual AF system, its clear to me that Sony are doing some innovative work here – and good on them)

My brand snobbery.

My first professional photos were taken on a Canon. It was a great camera, but for various reasons I switched to Nikon – always had the view that Canon and Nikon are more alike than different, and really doesn’t matter which you use (get’s back to “Show me your photos, not your camera.”).  But, when Sony came into the DSLR market I never cared for them much. I just saw them as a once-great consumer electronics brand that dropped the ball post-walkman era.  Things like their stubborn refusal to move on from their proprietary memory stick didn’t endear them to me either.

So I didn’t give them any head space, wasn’t of a mind to change DSLR brands and simply wasn’t looking.  I was using Hasselblad for some projects, Nikon for others. End of story. But I was looking for a quality compact, something to take with me nearly all the time.  As a result I bought the X100, later sold it as I thought the XPro1  might offer me more. It didn’t stack up for me, so I soon sold it and wondered about returning to the X100.  I hesitated as I wasn’t sure that was the answer, and in the meantime found I was using my iPhone camera every single day – was this the answer? Surely not.  Enter the RX1. This time Sony got my attention. On paper it was showing enormous promise – a full-frame sensor, a potentially beautiful fast prime, small size, and hopefully fast AF as I’d witnessed with their RX100.  Could this be the camera to break my brand snobbery around Sony?  As it turns out – the answer is a big yes.  If I didn’t have my investment in Nikon glass, I’d be looking at the a99 for my larger camera needs.

Image

Software?

What to say? Except I didn’t install it. Other’s have scored it near-zero so I wasn’t going to waste time on it.  IMO camera manufacturers should not make image processing software. Is there any that is widely accepted and used by the market? Of course not.  The RX1‘s RAW files can be opened in Lightroom and Photoshop, and both edit the RAW files just fine – hopefully Aperture will follow soon.

A few other points

  1. Shutter speed is selected via the rear dial near your right thumb.
  2. Viewfinder options are wallet-taxing (a choice of optical or electronic, both of which mount on the hot-shoe). I’ve found shooting without the viewfinder P&S style off the rear LCD quite good though, so not sure I needed to buy the EVF accessory.
  3. Similarly, the lens shade and thumb grip are over-priced.
  4. Turn-on and shut-down are good. Not the fastest, but by no means bad
  5. Does not ship with a separate battery charger.  You plug the cable into the camera to charge it (in some ways good for travel as less bulk to carry, but totally horrible in terms of charging a spare battery)
  6. Auto-ISO is really well designed. I’ve had great success setting the lower limit at ISO 100 and the upper at 3200 – shooting wide open at f2, the camera doesn’t seem to have dropped below 1/80th second but bumped ISO as required.  This has proved great for candid shots indoors.  The camera is very capable with high ISO’s so I’ll likely raise this to 6400 now.
  7. The files from the Sony seem to convert to beautiful black and whites.
  8. Has the usual PASM options, and matrix, centre and spot metering
  9. Plus/Minus EV knob is well positioned, and a lot more stable than on the X100 where I was always bumping it by mistake
  10. Has movie recording (which I have not tried yet)
  11. There is no built-in image stabilization. Can’t say I’ve missed it.
  12. Shutter delay is minimal, one of the best I have used in a compact camera

Who’s it for?

  • Those with ready cash🙂
  • Those wanting high IQ in a discrete camera (small/silent/vanilla appearance)
  • Pros wanting high IQ in a fall-back emergency shooter, or where a larger DSLR just isn’t suitable
  • Street shooters.  Did I mention the leaf shutter is super quiet?
  • Travelers. Unbelievably the Sony RX1 is smaller than the Fuji X100 (body, but not lens)
  • Those wanting a compact with the added appeal a lager sensor (noise benefits, shallower DOF in certain configurations, etc)

Summary

After a good work-out over Christmas I’m confidently saying that  the RX1 is an extraordinary little camera, absolutely worth the many awards it will surely be awarded.  It’s an absolute credit to Sony. There are only two full-frame cameras in this space, the RX1 and the Leica M series. I’ve long coveted the Leica, but am more than pleased with the Sony RX1 as a more sensible choice.  More sensible because it’s cheaper, and because I’m not faffing around with the manual focus of the Leica rangefinder (but yes they get bonus points for an exotic lens collection).  Image quality from the RX1 is incredibly good, when all the specs are put aside – this is what really matters to me, and I am very impressed.

Thank you Sony, I can see a long and enjoyable time with this wonderful camera!

Image

Update: Jan 2013 – Fuji have just announced the X100s, with a few features to improve auto-focus and they now claim they have the fastest autofocus.  Will have to take them at their word, suffice to say it sounds like the S version of the X100 addresses the weak focusing capabilities of the original model. A good move by Fuji.




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