Category Archives: Reviews

For the love of all that is holy, stay the hell away from OpenOffice

Twice now I’ve had it hopelessly corrupt a file on me. (What is it they say about “fool me twice, shame on me?”) Saving isn’t enough with this ungodly piece of shit. You need to run ten minute backups of the file you’re working on so that OpenOffice can’t kill it. The latest accomplishment of this pig astounds me: I opened a document and had OO open up a second window, so I could edit one part while looking at another. At some point, I close the window in which I was editing. Poof, the changes I made in that window were erased. You probably think I accidentally deleted something, right? Nope. Going back through the undo history, my changes just weren’t there. Things I’d done before the changes that were lost were undoable, so something fishy clearly happened. You also probably think I stupidly opened two windows using two different instantiations of OO, so that one overwrote the other. I didn’t; I used the “New Window” function. I suspect there is some bug with how OpenOffice handles two windows on the same document.

If this stupid blog does one thing useful, it will be to save just one person from using the complete waste of space that is OpenOffice. I can’t tell you how much I’d be willing to pay for Microsoft Office if I could go back in time and use it instead of OO, but I can tell you it’s a lot more than Microsoft charges for Office. What’s really embarrassing is that using a “community developed” version of office software is exactly the kind of stupid, false economy for which I railed against desktop linux.

Review: Olympus SP-560UZ

Olympus SP-560 UZ

I switched to this camera from a Canon A610 that died on me. The first thing I noticed with this camera is that the picture quality on my $200 Canon was better or equal than this $400 camera. The dynamic range is poor, with skies often washed out to white. Like many “super-zoom” cameras competing on specs, it makes up for noise and dynamic range limitations in its small CCD by over-processing, and the images show signs of heavy noise reduction filtering, washing out details. Granted, this isn’t a DSLR, but this isn’t a cheap camera, either. It appears that they really pushed the boundaries of the CCD to get 8 MP, and used too small a CCD for this resolution.

This problem appears is common to all recent cameras in this market segment, such as the Canon S5. They are pushing the pixel counts so high, and the zoom ranges so far, that optical quality is suffering significantly as a result. (See this post for an example and more explanation of why.) So, you get a 18x zoom. Is there really any point in zooming in on a bad picture?

I’m sorry to offend Olympus fans, but Olympus engineers can’t violate the laws of solid state physics, and smaller pixels means less photoelectron capacity, and that means less dynamic range. Smaller pixels also means less signal to noise, and it shows. The fact of the matter is that they have pushed the pixel count too far for the size of the CCD, and you will get better images from a camera with fewer pixels, ironically.

Another issue I found is that the autofocus algorithm is rather slow, especially at long focal lengths, and it often has difficulty with any scene movement. Worse, it will sometimes tell you it focused successfuly when it didn’t. Part of this is the zoom, I’m sure, but my experience in this regard is backed up by some very in-depth reviews on dpreview.com.

Aggregiously, they have disabled the use of panorama shooting for any non-Olympus branded data card, which is completely unneccesary and a brazen shakedown of their own customers. After paying $400 for a camera, it is an insult to be forced to buy an overpriced branded card to utilize full function of your own purchase.

On the bright side, the build quality is generally quite good. Much better than the Canon S5, which I also considered. The camera has a nice heft and a very solid feel in the hand. The materials are high quality all over, the one exception being a cheap and annoying rubber cover on the USB port. They also made the poor choice of using a non-standard USB cable, so you cannot use your existing set of cables. In addition, I’ve found that the physical USB connection at the camera is not very secure and will reset the connection upon even the slightest movement of the cable.

A true high point is the zoom and image stabilization. The 18x range is exceptional, and essentially gives you everything from a wide-angle to a medium telephoto. Unfortunately, the cost of this is a lens that does not perform well at the extremes: at wide-angle its highly distorting, and at all lengths there is significant chromatic aberration (color fringing) off center.

In summary, Olympus made a mistake by following the crown (maybe in fact leading it) by putting way too much effort into specmanship, and less into making the right engineering decisions. They clearly wanted to have 18x and 8MP printed on the box, and considered image quality a secondary concern. This may be endemic to all the brands of super-zoom cameras, but it doesn’t change the fact that you don’t truly get your money’s worth where it counts with this camera: image quality. This is a huge shame, because in most every other aspect this is the one of the nicest cameras I’ve ever used.

My advice: if you need the resolution afforded by 8 MP, you need to just suck it up and buy an SLR. Only they have large enough detectors to handle such resolutions adequately, and use different technology than found in a consumer camera. Otherwise, just get a $200 5 or 6 MP camera with the largest CCD size you can find (avoid the smallest pocket cameras). The images will be just as good, if not quite a bit better, and you’ll save a lot of money.

Review: Harmon Kardon AVR 247 Receiver

The sound quality is quite good, especially for an amp of this price point. However, this unit (and probably others in HK’s line, I imagine) has a flaw that will especially affect those users that rely on over-the-air TV (either digital or analog). Somehow, despite (and to the detriment of) their reputation, HK failed to effectively shield the digital electronics in this amp, and as a result it creates a tremendous amount of radio interference. They allude indirectly to this on their website FAQ, in fact, in warning cable users to use properly shielded cables. You know you’ve got a serious interference problem if you have to warn cable users about interference. God forbid you should actually try to get a digital over-the-air broadcast; apparently HK forgot about those users. Over-the-air users have no way to shield themselves from the interference coming from this unit, unfortunately. In my case, whenever I have this amp turned on, I lose digital TV reception. Given that I’m living within 7 miles of the transmitters, this suggests the 247 is quite a naughty little electromagnetic neighbor.

Perusing the net a little more thoroughly than I did upon my initial search, I find that others are having similar problems with various HK receivers, so this appears to be a problem across their recent line of receivers.

Even if most people have cable these days, this is inexcusable for a company that makes AV receivers. While HK was once a great manufacturer, they have clearly gone downhill in quality in some respects. The sound on this unit is good, but it may very well wreck your TV reception unless you have cable.

Review: SanDisk Sansa e250 media player

Forget about the video functionality. It crashes often, and even when it works it’s so small as to be pointless. But the sound is fantastic. Sound quality is a variable that’s often forgotten when shopping for MP3 players, but quite a variable it is from experience. This player has better sound than my ipod, and much better sound than my Insignia player. Just because MP3 players are digital doesn’t mean the quality can’t vary. Clearly they used good components in these, and the sound is crisp and without distortion. (I’m listening on a pair of high end in-ear phones.)

Review: Etymotic ER6i in-ear headphones

The company claims that if the bass seems weak, it’s because you don’t have them in right. However, I’ve used these for a long time and I’m pretty convinced these really are missing a lot of low end. They seal quite well in my ears, and do a fantastic job of noise isolation, but the bass is rather weak. This observation has also been made in reviews by respectable sources, such as c|net. That said, the mid- and high-range is incredibly detailed, and makes these earphones worth every penny. You can hear details in recordings that you completely miss with the standard iPod earbuds. For the price, they are quite good. If I had to do it over again, though, I might have gone with the Shure EC-3s for their broader response.

Don’t be too swayed by the claims by Etymotic that their earphones are the most ‘accurate’. There’s no generally accepted way to define that; it’s just a marketing gimmick. You don’t have to be a hip hop listener to miss the fullness of actually having bass in your music. Symphonic music, especially, suffers and sounds thin. But the low price and incredible sound quality otherwise make these a good buy. You’ll finally get the full value out of your MP3 player.

Review: Capresso Infinity burr grinder

At first, I was very happy with this grinder. It does a great job of producing a uniform grind. But then I started to notice that the fineness of grind would slowly change as I went through several cups of coffee. With use, the accumulated coffee dust must either misalign the burrs or clog the teeth. Whatever the reason, the fineness of the grind slowly but definitely changes with repeated use. After you clean it you start all over again. After a while I learned to just adjust the grind to compensate for this.

However, a second, even bigger, design flaw and one that is inexcusable is the fact that the delivery mechanism that takes coffee from the grinders to the bucket holds enough coffee for a single shot of espresso! In other words, when you grind enough coffee for one shot, you’re not getting the coffee you just ground, you’re getting the coffee that was ground up last time! Apparently, they expect you to not use the capacity of the hopper and grind only what you plan to use all the way through the system every time. But then why have a hopper to begin with?

Ground coffee does not do well when exposed to air, and so if you notice that subsequent cups of coffee made with this machine start to taste bad, you’ll know why. Using this product correctly is incredibly inconvenient, and requires a lot of cleaning and dumping in beans every time you want to use it. As good as some of the features of this are, I can’t recommend it. This tends to get great reviews, but I can’t help but think that the folks who love it are probably not aware of the fact that the perfect grind coming out of their beloved machine was probably ground the day before.