Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fujifilm XF1 retro serious compact shooter

I didn't really get anything for Christmas this year so I treated myself to another compact camera, the FujiFilm XF1.  This is not going to be a professional review, you can read pixel peeps reviews at various pro camera blogs. This post will be about my raving impressions and satisfaction with this new piece of kit.

What is it?

It is a retro designed rangefinder "styled" digital camera that competes with the Sony RX100, Panasonic Lumix LX7, and Canon S110. In other words, it is considered a "serious compact" camera with such features as a larger 2/3" EXR CMOS sensor (compared to other compacts), a max  f/1.8 aperture at it's widest 25mm (35" equivalent) focal length, RAW, and complete PASM manual controls. It has the same sensor as the Fujifilm X10. It originally listed for $500 but I was able to get it for $199 which is an incredible bargain.

So why did I get it? Well, I needed something smaller than my Micro 4/3 kits and something infinitely better than my disposable Canon Powershots (that I happen to replace every few years due to faulty lens errors). Why not the Sony RX100?  Are cameras like the Sony RX100 better? Sure, but I didn't pay $500-600 for my XF1 either. At that price point, I rather stick to my Micro 4/3 cameras and prime lens set-ups. Furthermore, I love the retro look which I am a big fan of. Can't you tell from looking at this picture below of my digital cameras? I like the clean lines, leatherette wrap. The XF1 is stylishly beautiful.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Apple Misunderstood Commercial

I have to say this is one of the most compelling commercials Apple has ever made and it really hit home to me.

It is called "Misunderstood" and chronicles the holiday get-together with a lonesome teenager who seems to be pre-occupied with his smartphone. What the family doesn't realize until the end is a kid making a family video as a gift. It is a real tear jerker because I've experienced the same thing.

Our entire extended family expects me to be the videographer of family events. When I don't lug around a big SLR, they seem to be dissapointed but often get a pleasant surprise usually before the end of an event. At a wedding, baptism, or soccer game, I'll have a fully edited video using iMovie complete with opening titles, nice transitions, and color graded effects before everyone heads home. This is why the Apple ecosystem is inherently so powerful. At any given functions, I'll have relatives with the latest Note 3, Nexus 5 and ultra fast new smartphones but none of them can produce the level of video professionalism as an iPhone/iMovie combo. The look on the eyes of a braggart relative, with his latest and greatest tech gadget, is priceless when his enthusiasm is drowned out by the simplicity of a nicely edited, thoughtful video.

I've had some real tear-jerker moments that could be made into compelling commercials. For example, at the birth of my daughter, my then 4 year old son was at home with his grandma as hospitals don't allow minors in the delivery room. As my wife was giving birth to our daughter, I called him on Facetime. He, a four year old toddler, answered the call and said hi to his newly brand new little sister via video chat. The nurses and delivery doctors were impressed and said hi to my son. It was one of those most touching moments that I will never forget for the rest of my life. My son was elated to see his sister and felt like he, too, was experiencing the birth of a new human. Touching indeed. Facetime, simple idea, but inherently so powerful that can only be described when you experience it. There are hundreds of little other moments like that.

Hence, this is why people should not be caught up in tech specs. Good software design makes magic happen.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Google Chromecast short review

OK, so I broke down and bought a Google Chromecast. Early on, I figure I didn't have a need for it since all my TVs have some form of Netflix, Youtube playback. I also have an AppleTV for screen casting and iTunes movie playback. The Chromecast appeared to be redundant and un-necessary for my needs.

So why did I get one? Simple. They finally added PLEX support. Yep, the latest updates now support PLEX playback for PlexPass members which I happen to be. I figure I could cut my electricity usage even further. I was using a combination of HTPC, iPad, and GoogleTV to watch PLEX in my living room. With a HTPC, I was still burning un-necessary KwH of electricity leaving it on days and weeks at a time just for PLEX. I was also an inch away from picking up a refrurb ROKU unit for another room just for PLEX. However, the latest updates and recent holiday promos, I decided to just bite the bullet.

So how does it work. Brilliant. I configured everything from my iPhone, browsed PLEX on my iPhone and voila. PLEX via Chromecast. The whole process took less than 5 minutes.

Thats it.

Now, there are some issues. I can't seem to swap audio channels and have no way of knowing DTS or AC3 5.1 surround is enabled. There is no way to swap audio tracks. I figure there will be a future software update to fix this.

Right now, I'm pretty giddy.

Playing PLEX is pretty cool as you can go back on the app and pick up what you are watching and scrub (rewind/fast-forward) your position. With apps like youtube, once you initiate a playback, you can't control it if you end up doing something else.

Speaking of Youtube, the 1080p playback is flawless. I fired up some videos from my Macbook and was generally impressed. The only thing that bothered me was if I closed my browser or swap to my phone, there was no way to control the playback on the television.

Netflix from the phone worked pretty good as well. However, I can't seem to find a way to enable stuff like subtitles yet.

Screen Tab/sharing is pretty lame compared to Apple Airplay. The quality was generally to low and frame rates too slow for me to bother with. Apple's Airplay is brilliant, period.

Overall, I am impressed. Sure, it is a limited device. If you already own an AppleTV, getting a Chromecast was pretty redundant until they recently added PLEX support. I know you can get PLEX on AppleTV with some DNS hacks but I didn't want to go there. So how does the AppleTV vs Chromecast compare? It is hard to say because both devices do different things. AppleTV can be a stand-alone device. The in-laws can operate it without problem. The Chromecast requires a device to control it. If I told my dad to play Netflix on the Chromecast, he will never figure it out. Plus, I use my AppleTV to listen to music quite a bit off my 20,000 plus iTunes library along with iTunes Match/Radio.

I also happen to have a bunch of other Android/Google TV devices that can do Chromecasting using apps (MiiPC, Logitech Revue, a few Android sticks) but $30 or so for a plug-n-play solution was a bit of a no brainer for me.

However, the Chromecast is cheap that I plan to get another one for the nursery. It is that good of a device and in this household, there is no need to take sides.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Two week impression of the Fiat 500e Electric Car.

My first week with my Fiat 500e was rather interesting. After the second day of ownership, I got a flat tire via a nail puncture so I was immobilized for a day. This is not the fault of the car. After that fiasco, I  began to enjoy the fruits of driving a 100% electric car. Every concern you may have came into play - range anxiety, charging, awkward driving. Hence, I decided to make this write-up for those interested in venturing into EV land.

The first day of commute was rather pleasant. I was able to remotely start the climate control system of the car while I was in bed; getting ready to go to work. The car can be pre-conditioned for two ten minute intervals via the smartphone app (both iOS and Android). You can either heat your car up in the morning or turn on the A/C while it is in the blistering sunny mall parking lot while you shop. This ultra cool and handy!


My commute is exactly 50 miles round trip which includes errands and detours. Pre-heating the car in the morning killed the range by ten miles (unless you are plugged in charging via 240V). Sloppy driving will kill the range. This cause a bit of range anxiety. I know the car's battery will degrade over time and it won't hold it's charge over the years so this is a real concern of mine. However, this range anxiety has been really hyped up by EV critics and media. At the start of my commute the range dropped by 10 miles. However, after 15 minutes of driving, I no longer needed to run the heat at 84 f. I slowly regained those 10 miles back from regenerative braking. Going up an incline will drop your range by 3-4 miles. Going down an off-ramp and braking will regain those those 3-4 miles and maybe even add a few more back in. For example, going up the new Bay Bridge, I saw an immediate drop of  4 miles with my range at 60 miles. As I approached the first off-ramp with a steep decline, I got back 3 miles. Driving through a few city streets, I ended up with a 69 remaining miles as I pulled into my work garage. In the end, it all even out. Obsessing over the range is un-necessary if you know you have a cushion. In my case, it is 30 plus miles. I obviously know and understand the limits of this car. I also an ICE car as a back-up.

Over a period of a few days, the numbers all worked out. As you can see in my morning commute, after a drive of 21.9 miles, I still have 69 miles of range left. Indicating, I was getting 90 miles or so per charge. This is regular San Francisco commute with the heater on at 5-6AM.

It also tells me that I need around 1h 20 minutes to top it back up at 240V L2 charging. So roughly, my daily commute will require less than 3 hours of charging per day on a L2 charger. I'll discuss charging further.

My average MPGe (Miles Per Gallon equivalent) is roughly 141.6 MPGe on this trip. This really doesn't tell anyone anything because MPGe is pretty convoluted on how the EPA worked that out. California has high gas prices and electricity rates so the EPA's MPGe formula is out of whack to me. The more important measuring stick is how many miles per kWH I am burning. This is what I care about and this is what you should consider when buying and driving an electric car.

The smartphone apps is pretty handy at telling you. You can punch in your numbers of how much you pay for gas and electricity. On that last trip. My ride burned 5kWh of juice. My average miles peer KwH was 4.2 which is decent. At 87 mile range, the m/kWH is around 3.5. I've seen people go as far as 5 to 6 miles/kWh if they drive like a grandma. The Fiat has a 24 kWh battery. So if I continue to drive at 4.2m/kWH, I would get a real range of 100 miles. At 5m/kWh, I would get 120 miles. The EPA rating probably got 3.5m/kWh (3.5*24)=87 mile range.

Doesn't this make more sense? Then when you see how many kWH you are burning, you can see your true cost to operate. I plugged in the .30 cent a kWH which is around Tier 2/Tier3 PG&E. This is considered pretty high. That trip cost me $1.50 at that high rate. Now, if I change my charging habits and PG&E rates, I could get it down to .10 cents a kWh; making this trip $0.50 cents. The same trip in my Range Rover at 15MPG would cost me $6.21. So even at the high PG&E rate, I am still saving quite a bit of money. But if switched to a TOU (Time of Use) PG&E rate, I could save even more. Actually quite a bit more but it requires some consideration.

Driving and Charging

After about two days, the range anxiety goes away. I don't even try to drive like a grandma anymore, I just drive. I know I have sufficient range for my needs. However, charging was pretty problematic the first few days. Charging 110v takes a long time. It takes 23 hours to do a full charge. However, since I am never running on empty, my charge time was 12-13 hours the first few days. That meant when I got home, I had to plug in right away and let it charge over-night. This meant no side trips or anything as I could use my other ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars for errands.  There were times where I wanted to stop by some local L2 quick chargers. One hour of L2 charging would be the equivalent of 5.5 to 6 hours of 110v charging. I figure I could do some Christmas shopping for 2 hours to top myself off to 80-90% pretty quickly.

Now, I have a L2 charging station installed and it takes less than 4 hours to do a full charge from empty. Average charges take an hour to 2 hours depending on my needs. If you plan to have a 100% electric car, 240v L2 charging is an absolute requirement. My wife's car can get away with 110 charging since it is a plugin, extended range electric hybrid.

Driving the car is a bit interesting because the range meter fluctuates on how you drive and the roads you take. It also accounts for weather. Some mornings, I get 96 mile range, Some days, I get a predicted 88 mile range. I'll drive for a few minutes and the car will drop 6 miles just going up an incline and regain those miles as I coast along city intersections. The faster you drive, the quicker you burn up the kWH of battery juice. All in all, I think the EPA's rating is very fair and accurate for this car. The car, as many professional media reviewers noted, consistently matches the EPA's 87 mile range. I'm sure, you'll have some outliers claiming they get 100 mile or so range. Sure, it is entirely possible to even break 110 miles or so but it will be painful with no air-conditioning and driving in the slow lane.

Here was a very good day for me. 79 mile range after driving 21.9 miles. So I pretty much have more than 100 mile of range on this one charge.

My mi/kWH was 4.7 which is pretty good indeed.

Public charging is interesting. There are a bunch of companies competing for EVSE charging stations. Chargepoint is one of the biggest. You really have to study what they charge at each location. By the hour, at $1.00 is pretty fair in my book. With a 6.6 kWH charger, that comes out to roughly $15 cents a kWH. Unfortunately, at this one particular Chargepoint, they changed from hourly to kWH charging. At .45 cents a kWh, you are better off charging at home. An hour charge here costed me around $3.00 which simply was not worth it. This particular station gets no use so there were a bunch of bystanders with the look of befuddlement as they saw me plug in.

At other locations, I like the fact I get front row access to entrances. In Emeryville, the IKEA Blink stations charge $1.00 an hour at the free parking spots. Now, compare that to the next lot for Bay Street Shopping at $3 an hour, that is a bargain. In two hours of shopping, I'll top off my range of 40 or so miles. So whenever I go to Emeryville, I'll park at IKEA and make a short walk to Bay Street shops. The stalls are also widely space so you don't have to worry about parking lot dings. Another great plus!

There are no guarantees you will have a spot available so all the EVSE companies have smartphone apps to tell which are available and which are in use. I suspect all EV drivers are pretty much smartphone aware by now. I haven't run into any problems but I have notice a few ICE cars parking in stalls where they shouldn't be and some EV squatters who definitely hog the spaces without charging.

Other impressions

This car's braking system was designed to be seamless. Unlike some other EVs, you don't really feel or know when you are regeneratively braking. From what I've read, this was the intent from the engineers. Still, it feels kind of weird compared to other EVs. I want to feel like I and putting energy back into the car. However, I guess this should be good for most people. There are many obnoxious EV drivers who continually brake their cars, forcefully coast from stop sign to stop sign; holding up traffic so they can squeeze in some extra juice. Those drivers may be pleasantly disgruntled to expect that feedback from this car.

Compared to my wife's car, this car doesn't feel like it has all the necessary tech. Each car will have a different set of software and UI. I think I simply like Ford's implementation better as it gives you a lot more data and coaching on how to drive. The instrumentation panel is rather simple for an EV. On the right side of the dial, it either goes red up when you are burning too much, green in the middle for ECO, and blue when you are regeneratively putting energy back in.

I think I'll give more comparisons to the C-Max Energi in a dedicated post. There are lots of Chevy Volt versus Nissan Leaf comparisons on the Internet so it might be fitting to have a Fiat 500e versus Ford C-Max Energi from a real owner who owns and operates both.

I really like how stealthy this car is. Mine is black-on-black like all my other previous cars. There really isn't anything to tell a bystander that this is an electric car. Sure, there are some badging here and there but you really have to be look and be acutely informed on electric cars to know. There are a few outlandish color schemes orange with white fender that have in-your face orange accents on some 500es.  I'm glad I went with a more conservative color scheme. I park in a garage in San Francisco full of Mercedes, Audis, Porsches (nice ones like the GT3, C4s), Range Rovers, and a few Teslas and the valets seem to be genuinely more interested in my car. They also know I've gone through half a dozen or so new vehicles in the past decade and sort of expect me to have a new ride. Yet, they seem to be fascinated with this one more so. I guess they're interests lies in the fact that the Fiat is extremely affordable and within reach for many.

Link: Fuel Economy Stats on the 500e