Archive for July 2007

Alesis unveils the iMultiMix 9R rack mixer with iPod dock

July 31, 2007

Take a look behind the sound board at most small-to-medium size concert venues lately and you’ll probably find the sound guy is playing the pre- and post-show tunes from an iPod jacked into the mixer — a trend Alesis is hoping to capitalize on with its new iMultiMix 9R rack mixer with built-in iPod dock. While we’ve seen a lot of mixer / iPod dock combinations in the past, this is the first we’ve seen targeted at the pro market, and it shows in the lack of chintzy features — in fact, apart from the iPod dock, you’re looking at a pretty standard seven-channel rack mixer: five mic preamps with phantom power, two line inputs (one switchable from the iPod dock to the external input), three band EQ with bandpass controls, and an effects loop.

Interestingly, the unit also features a composite video output, which presumably will allow videos to be played right from connected video iPods. Expect these to start shipping later this year for around $299.


Panasonic HDC-SD1

July 31, 2007

One advantage of using flash memory cards as a recording medium in camcorders is that they facilitate smaller designs. The body of Panasonic’s 1.1-pound HDC-SD1, which records high-definition 1,440×1,080 AVCHD video to SD cards, is a mite smaller than camcorders which use other formats, but its tubular shape retains a bit too much bulk to be truly compact. It’s not wasted space, though; the SD1 accommodates a 12x zoom lens, a 3-inch, 16:9 LCD, a 5.1-channel surround microphone, and a trio of 1/4-inch, 560,000-pixel CCDs.

Ironically, one of the SD1’s biggest design weaknesses stems from its lack of a bulky DVD drive, hard drive, or tape compartment that you often find on other models. The extra height helps provide a good solid grip; I found the SD1 just a little too squat to comfortably hold with my forefinger on the zoom switch. In addition, the joystick for navigating the menus and accessing shooting adjustments–white balance, shutter speed, iris (aperture), and so on–is too far to the right to easily control with a thumb while holding on to the low-riding body. As a result, you really need to operate the camcorder with two hands: one to shoot and one to hold it level. Even then, changing the manual settings tends to jog the camcorder more than usual. And you frequently have to nudge the joystick multiple times to effect a change.

While I really like the joystick navigation, other operational aspects can be a bit frustrating. The manual focus is unusable, for example, as it provides no distance feedback. It does show a zoomed view (Focus Assist), but there’s too much trial and error involved in finding focus. There were times when the camcorder wouldn’t focus at all (as the subject was probably too close), yet I couldn’t figure out when moving the joystick had stopped having any effect.

This situation applies to the device’s features as well. The SD1 offers a reasonably broad set of options, but their implementation occasionally falls short. For instance, you can’t manually set the shutter speed below 1/60 of a second. The iris settings may confuse some users, as Panasonic combines iris settings with gain controls. At and below f/2.8, the SD1 reports in decibels–from 0dB to 18dB, adjustable in 3dB increments. At 0dB it displays “open,” and then gets narrower in f-stop, at various increments, to f/16. Beyond f/16, it reports “close.” While there’s a logic to combining them–both allow you to increase or decrease the exposure–each produces different side-effects when changed. The shutter and iris settings also function more like priority modes than manual modes; that is, you can’t change them independently.

Other shooting features include backlight compensation; five scene program modes; MagicPix night mode (which drops the shutter speed below 1/60); a very nice tele-macro mode; soft-skin mode; zebra stripes; an audio wind filter; and zoom microphone. The SD1 also offers Auto Ground-Directional Standby (AGS)–a fancy way of saying that it goes into standby when you hold the camcorder upside-down. At its highest quality, or HF mode, the SD1 requires 1GB per 10 minutes of video, and uses constant 13Mbps encoding. In the lower-quality HN and HE modes, the SD1 switches to variable bit-rate encoding, and increases the available recording times to approximately 15 minutes per gigabyte (9Mbps) and 22 minutes per gigabyte (6Mbps), respectively.  

Overall, I liked the SD1’s video quality. In good light, video usually looks nice and sharp; the colors are bright and pleasing; the exposure generally hits the mark; and there’s little noise in low-light shots. The 1,920×1,080 still photos look good printed up to 8×4.5–I wouldn’t bump any HD-resolution shots beyond letter size. Played back on an HDTV, videos and stills look great. Up close in a video editor, however, they lose a bit of their luster. Interlacing and interpolation artifacts appear, thanks to the undersized 520,000-pixel sensors (effective resolution) Panasonic uses. 

 Image quality is also inextricably entwined with performance, which isn’t so hot. The autofocus is a bit too slow to keep up with unpredictable subjects, such as squirrels. And the automatic white balance seems confused most of the time, usually producing overly cool tones. On random occasions, the video seemed to get particularly soft and the autofocus simply didn’t lock. The optical stabilizer works well, though.

A fine if not stellar camcorder, the Panasonic HDC-SD1 delivers solid AVCHD video that’s fun to watch, somewhat less fun to shoot, and not fun at all to edit 

Reviewed by: Lori Grunin

Convert movies for your iPhone (or iPod)

July 31, 2007

I’m not sure how you people can watch movies and TV shows on those little screens, but you sure are doing it! Every time I turn around on the bus or in the airport, somebody is watching video on her iPod. (If she’s supercool, she’s watching it on her new iPhone.)

 It’s easy to buy videos designed to view on those little screens, of course, but if you want to get your own DVDs and Web movies onto your iPod or iPhone, you’ll have to dive into the wide world of video converters 

The first thing you should know is that most commercial DVDs are copyright-protected and to break that copyright protection is a legal violation in many countries, including the U.S. None of the software on CNET will “crack” encrypted DVDs. 

The second thing to know is that iTunes itself is a decent converting tool. Simply select a file from your video list, right-click it, and choose “Convert Selection for iPod” to create an MP4 movie. If you’re dealing with Web video or DVDs, however, you’ll likely need another conversion tool. Also, in my experience, iTunes conversion is mighty slow. 

The iPhone and most video iPods support two basic video formats: MPEG-4 (.mp4 and .m4v) and MOV (QuickTime). The truth is that converting video files is all a matter of managing free codecs, and many programs will accomplish the same goal, but I’ve found a few interfaces and functionalities that I like.

One of the more interesting video converters I’ve seen recently is CinemaForgeLite, a tool for grabbing Web movies from sites like YouTube and transforming them into iPod-ready video files. A simple wizard walks you through the process, or an advanced interface lets you customize settings like frame size and bit rate. It seems to work best on YouTube and major video-sharing sites.

Cerwin-Vega CVHD 5.1

July 16, 2007

In the 1970s, Cerwin-Vega was a big name in the speaker business, but it fell off the radar a while back. It never really went away but instead focused on building speakers for car audio, clubs, and movie theaters. The company’s biggest coup in the latter venue was its development of Sensurround speaker technology with Universal Studios, which used special Cerwin-Vega subwoofers to supply ultra deep bass for Sensurround-encoded movies such as Earthquake and Midway. The new CVHD 5.1 (Cerwin-Vega High Definition) series marks the brand’s return to the consumer market, and–thanks to its combination of impressive sound quality and relatively modest price–it looks and sounds like a winner. Cerwin-Vega’s engineers insisted the new system had to have five identical satellite speakers to guarantee seamless surround imaging. And each of those speakers sports a whopping seven drivers–six woofers and one tweeter–a safety-in-numbers strategy that ensures the speaker can handle power and deliver full home theater dynamics while maintaining low distortion. The CVHD 5.1’s seriously potent 12-inch subwoofer supplies the motivation to rock your world. Best of all, the CVHD 5.1 is equally adept with home theater and music, a rare feat for flat-screen-friendly speaker packages, especially one as affordable as the CVHD 5.1. Our only real complaint is that there’s a hidden charge for anyone who’s not mounting the speakers on the ceiling or the wall: you’ll need to invest an additional $280 to $435 in floor stands for five satellite speakers, above and beyond the set’s $1,000 list price. Thankfully, the fact that the speakers can be found online for hundreds less takes out a bit of the sting.

The Cerwin-Vega CVHD 5.1 is a six-piece satellite/subwoofer system. Each of the five identical satellite speakers (CVHD 63) measures 22.5 inches high by 5 inches wide by 5 inches deep–far smaller than full-size bookshelf or tower speakers, but a tad bigger and bulkier than some competing svelte flat-screen models, but attractive enough. The speaker’s front surface has a thin silver plastic frame and nonremovable black cloth grille, and the cabinet is made of molded black plastic. The speakers come with metal wall-mount brackets, or you can opt for OmniMount wall/ceiling mounts.

Adjustable floor stands with wire management to hide speaker cables are sold separately, and they’re not too expensive–the CVHD-FST (for the front and back lefts and rights) list for $180 per pair (but can be found for as little as $110 online) and CVHD-CS (for the center channel, which sits horizontally) goes for $75 or less. Wall or ceiling mounts or floor stands are your only choices–the satellite’s curved ends prevent it from standing on its own, and Cerwin-Vega doesn’t offer a table stand. That means you’re either mounting these speakers or investing up to $435 for floor stands.  The 17.75-inch-high-by-16.75-inch-wide-by-16.5-inch-deep subwoofer sure looks like it means business, but its textured black paint and black cloth grille won’t win any beauty contests. Pop off the cloth grille and you can ogle the red-ringed 12-inch woofer and Cerwin-Vega logo–the sight will quicken the pulse of any audiophile old enough to remember the brand’s glory days in the 1970s, but the color may be too flashy for more subdued tastes. The sub is built like a tank and weighs 48.5 pounds.

Cerwin-Vega recommends an unusually high subwoofer-to-satellite crossover setting of 150 hertz, and that’s what we used for most of our listening tests. But many receivers’ bass management systems come with fixed crossovers, set to 80 or 100 Hz, so we also listened that way and didn’t hear much difference in the sound. If you can dial in the 150 Hz setting, go for it–otherwise don’t sweat it.

The five satellite speakers are two-way designs employing six 3-inch cellulose/composite woofers and a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter. The satellites are extremely efficient (95 dB)–that’s a good thing, because they can play really loud with low power receivers (maximum power handling is rated at 125 watts continuous). Instead of the typical plastic-spring clip connectors, the speakers boast heavy-duty five-way binding posts–they accept banana plugs, spades, or bare wire ends.
The powered (250 watt) subwoofer features a front firing 12-inch woofer and two ports. The rear panel has volume and variable crossover (50 to 150 hertz) control, a pair of RCA inputs, a separate “LFE” input, and a 0/180 degree phase switch.

If you like the look and sound of the CVHD system but don’t need the full surround treatment, Cerwin-Vega also offers a stereo (plus subwoofer) version of the system, the CVHD 2.1. It retails for $700.


Back in the 1960s, car guys used to say, “There’s no substitute for cubic inches.” Big engines made more power and torque than little ones, and that holds true today for large subwoofers. A 12-inch woofer in a big cabinet can generate a lot more room-filling low frequencies than any 6- or 8-inch sub. Cerwin-Vega’s 12-inch beast can fill even fairly large rooms with very deep bass.

Big bass wouldn’t mean much if the satellites didn’t keep pace with the muscular subwoofer. No problem there–the sats were unusually alive and dynamic. The combination of the two mimicked the sound of a much larger system with tower speakers.

Since the surround speakers are exactly the same as the front speakers, the CVHD 5.1 system was capable of producing front-to-rear, wraparound soundfields. The center channel speaker’s talents reproducing dialog were also above par. The spatial coherency on well-recorded DVDs–such as our favorite, House of Flying Daggers–was obvious in the smoothness of the sounds as they moved from speaker to speaker. That said, we could localize the surround channel speakers’ positions, more than we could from true dipole/bipole speakers such as Aperion’s Intimus 534-SS; those speakers go for $245 each, and are utilized in systems such as the Aperion Intimus 533-PT Cinema HD. But dipole/bipole speakers are relatively expensive, so we really can’t fault the CVHD 5.1 as a $1,000 system.

 On CDs, the CVHD 5.1’s sound emphasized every recording’s detail, and yet treble was very natural. You can hear an acoustic guitarist’s fingers sliding over the strings and a drummer’s most delicate tap on the cymbals. Most packaged 5.1 channel systems sound undernourished and bass-shy in stereo, but again, the CVHD 5.1 broke that stereotype. It was almost as satisfying in two-channel as it was in surround. Live concert DVDs from Cream and My Morning Jacket sounded especially good. In fact, the CVHD 5.1 sounded better and better as we cranked the volume, which is a sure sign the CVHD 5.1 has very low distortion and the sats and sub are well matched. Hey, CerwinVega is known as “the LOUD speaker company,” and that’s no hype. The drums, in particular, came off well, with the sort of impact and power that’s rare in $1,000 sat/sub systems. Acoustic jazz on the One Night With Blue Note DVD was just as mush fun, the vivid clarity of Herbie Hancock‘s piano and Freddie Hubbard‘s trumpet added to the music’s excitement. The sub’s control over the bass was decent, but it could have been a little tighter and better defined. Then again, we were pleasantly surprised how well it integrated with the satellites, but the CVHD 5.1’s blend wasn’t perfect. There were a few times where the bass sounded a little thin, but even so, the sat/sub blend was well above average. To prove that point we did try substituting a different subwoofer–the 10-inch model that comes with the Onkyo HT-SR800 home-theater-in-a-box system. It didn’t come close to matching the Cerwin-Vega satellites; the CVHD 5.1 is, indeed, a finely tuned system. In the final analysis, the Cerwin-Vega CVHD 5.1 system represents a great bang for the buck–but it would be an even better one if you weren’t stuck with having to buy those floor stands. We’d love to see the company charge a bit more (say, $1,200 instead of $1,000) and include table stands with the speakers. In their current configuration, though, they’re still highly recommendable… especially for anyone who listens to a good balance of music and movies and has an appreciation of deep bass.

Canon EOS-1D Mark III

July 16, 2007

If you’ve ever looked at the sideline of a major sporting event and seen a gaggle of huge white lenses, then you’ve witnessed Canon’s dominance in the sports shooting world. Part of the reason for Canon’s edge is its 1D series of SLR bodies which, in the form of the new EOS 1D Mark III, will no doubt continue the Japanese camera company’s preeminence among the paparazzi, sports shooters, news photographers, and anyone else who has to shoot fast bursts of high-megapixel images. This new SLR feels like a machine gun when set to its Continuous Shooting mode, with which we were able to capture 10-megapixel JPEGs at an average of 9.9 frames per second. Add to that this camera’s amazingly low noise, high-end build quality, and vast custom-function menu, and you’ve got one of the hottest cameras to hit the market this year.

At first glance, the 1D
Mark III doesn’t look all that different from its predecessor, the 1D Mark II N. It still has a built-in vertical grip, with duplicate shutter and control buttons, so you don’t lose functionality when changing grips. In fact, from the front, the most noticeable difference is that the Mark III has a steeper slope to the camera top on the nongrip side and a smoother slope from the prism hump on both sides. However, even that is difficult to see unless you’re very familiar with both cameras.

Turn the Mark III around, though, and you’ll see that things have changed quite a bit, largely due to the addition of a 3-inch LCD. This has forced Canon to move some buttons around to make up for the fact that the LCD now extends to the left edge of the camera. Menu and Info buttons move above the screen, while the playback button drops to below it. The Select button from the Mark II N is now obsolete, thanks to the Mark III’s Set button, which is mounted in the middle of the large scroll wheel, much like the scroll wheels found on the EOS 30D and 5D. Another feature drawn from those siblings is the tiny joystick controller, which is used to navigate between various menus, among other things.

One of the only problems with Canon’s 1D and 1Ds series bodies is that they are big and heavy. Some photographers simply don’t want to deal with the weight–about 3 pounds without a lens– while those with very small hands often complain that some controls are out of reach. After a long day of shooting, my right arm definitely did feel the awesome weight of this camera, but I didn’t have trouble reaching any important buttons, even though my hands are on the small side for a man. Canon does place the exposure compensation button a little too far to the left, but since the large scroll wheel doubles as exposure compensation in aperture- and shutter-priority modes, it wasn’t a problem for me. In case you’re worrying about accidental exposure compensation, know that you can disable the large wheel with the three-way off/on/on-with-scroll-wheel switch, which is easy to manipulate with your thumb. My biggest control complaint is that Canon didn’t clearly mark a hard button for white balance. The Func button does let you change white balance when in shooting mode, but it easily could have been labeled as such. I had to consult the manual to find that out.  

While the Mark II N used button combinations for bracketing, drive mode, and ISO, the only combo that remains in the Mark III is for bracketing. ISO moves to its own button just behind the shutter button, which I found extremely useful and convenient compared to the old configuration. Drive mode gets doubled up with the AF button, with the two split between the small scroll wheel behind the shutter and the large wheel on the camera’s back. Metering and flash compensation get the same treatment, as they did on the Mark II N.  

Canon also has added a new viewfinder, which the company says ups the magnification to 0.76x from 0.72x and the viewing angle to 30 degrees, from 28.2, while maintaining the same 20mm eye point and the same claimed 100 percent coverage. Suffice to say that the viewfinder is nice and bright and a pleasure to use for manual focus. If you’re the type that likes to change your focusing screen, you’ll like the fact that Canon offers 11 different kinds of optional focusing screens for the 1D Mark III. Like its predecessor and big sister 1Ds Mark II, the Mark III includes numerous rubber gaskets to keep dust and moisture out of the camera. New to this model is a redesigned hot shoe that is surrounded by raised plastic and made to mate with a rubber gasket on the new 580 EX II Speedlite, to effectively seal one of the few places that wasn’t already sealed on the 1D Mark II N.

At the heart of this camera you’ll find a newly developed 10.1-megapixel Canon CMOS sensor. Like all other 1D cameras to date, the sensor is APS-H-size (28.1×18.7mm), which gives the
Mark III a 1.3x focal-length multiplier. That means that a 50mm lens will give you a field of view that is similar to that of a 65mm lens. As such, the 1D Mark III’s sensor size lands between the full-frame sensors offered by the EOS 1Ds Mark II and the EOS 5D, which have no effective focal-length multiplier, and the 1.5x/1.6x focal-length multipliers found on almost all other digital SLRs on the market. Whenever you turn the camera on or off, the camera vibrates the IR-cut filter to shake away any dust that may have settled on it. If that’s not enough, the camera can find dust particles on the sensor, plot their locations, and store that data so the included Digital Photo Professional software can remove the dust spots in post processing.

To process the data from the sensor, the camera uses a pair of Canon’s Digic III processors, making it the first dual-processor camera that I’ve ever seen. Instead of the 12-bit analog-to-digital converters found in Canon’s other cameras, the Mark III uses 14-bit converters, which theoretically allow for more tonal gradations than their 12-bit brethren. A dedicated AF processing unit drives the camera’s 45-point autofocus system, which includes 19 cross-type points. For comparison, both the EOS 5D and 30D sport only one cross-type point, while Canon’s 16.6-megapixel 1Ds Mark II has a mere seven cross-type points. Cross-type AF points provide a higher level of sensitivity than standard points. The points are both user-selectable and groupable, so you can fine-tune the AF system as you like it.

Exposure metering options are just as sophisticated as the AF system. The camera uses a 63-zone through-the-lens (TTL) metering system that offers full-frame evaluative metering, center-weighted average, and partial and spot metering. According to Canon, the partial option uses the center 13.5 percent of the frame to determine exposure, while the spot setting uses 3.5 percent and can be set to the center or linked to the AF sensor in use, or you can choose up to eight spot readings and let the camera average them. Canon calls this last option “multispot metering.” In our field tests, the 1D Mark III yielded remarkably accurate exposures and was rarely fooled by tricky scenes, but the 3D color Matrix Metering found in Nikon’s D2Xs–with its 1,005-pixel sensor and onboard database of comparison image data–barely edges out the 1D Mark III’s system when it comes to very tricky situations. Ultimately, though, this may be a matter of preference on my part, since the Nikon tends to err on the side of caution in preserving highlight detail by slightly underexposing in some situations, while the Canon will serve up what is traditionally a proper exposure. Really, you can’t call either approach “wrong.” If you’re really worried about highlights, though, you can activate the Mark III‘s Highlight Tone Priority custom function, which extends the upper portion of the dynamic range to help preserve highlight detail.  

While most photographers likely will stick to a neutral color mode, the 1D Mark III offers an entire Picture Style menu in which you can quickly adjust sharpness, contrast, saturation, and color tone to change the overall look of the images you capture. In addition to six presets, which can each be modified as you see fit, there are three user-defined settings so you can make up your own. Among the presets is a monochrome setting, which includes filter effects that mimic traditional (yellow, orange, red, and green) black-and-white filter sets. In addition to the filters, there are also toning effects, such as sepia, blue, purple, or green. The black-and-white filter effects are subtle, but do a decent job of approximating the effect of real filters. Best of all, you can access the Picture Style menu from a dedicated button next to the Func button, so if you want to create different styles for different situations, it’s easy to switch between them quickly.

Including the one mentioned above, the Canon 1D Mark III has 57 custom functions. Just for reference, the Nikon D2Xs has 42. Both of them can be customized extensively, and it would behoove any owner of either camera–or of almost any midlevel or higher digital SLR–to read the manual to find out how to tweak the camera to suit their shooting style. If you own a previous 1D series camera, don’t assume that the number-labels of specific custom functions will be the same on the 1D Mark III. Some functions lend themselves to one-time settings, such as the ISO speed range, which lets you set the highest and lowest available ISO from among the camera’s range of L (aka ISO 50) all the way up to H (aka ISO 6,400). While the camera displays L and H for these two extremes, they show up as either 50 or 6,400 in your images’ EXIF data. Other custom functions, such as the number of bracketed shots (from two to seven), or linking spot metering to the selected AF point, lend themselves to more frequent changes. Thankfully, Canon groups the custom functions into four submenus to make it easier to find the one you want to change.

Canon officially joins the live-view SLR revolution with the 1D Mark III, which lets you frame images with the big 3-inch LCD on the back of the camera instead of the optical viewfinder, should you choose to do so. Once the Live View mode is enabled in the setup menu, all you have to do is press the Set button to enter Live View mode. When you do, the camera locks the mirror up, thereby cutting off the optical viewfinder, and you are restricted to manual focus. Conveniently, you can use the playback zoom controls to zoom in either 5x or 10x on your subject, to aid in manual focusing. Canon doesn’t set any strict limits on how long you can remain in Live View mode, but it does mention that the sensor heats up in Live View mode and that you may encounter a thermometer icon on the LCD once the camera reaches a certain temperature. I never saw this icon when I used Live View mode, but if you typically shoot in very warm environments (studio hot lights, anyone?) you may run into it. As you may guess, shooting at higher ISOs should make the sensor heat up faster than at lower ISOs. Canon also warns that increased temperatures can lead to increased image noise.  

As usual, along with this new SLR comes a new version of Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software for raw processing. This new version (3.0) is very similar to the last version. We did notice, however, that it runs more smoothly on Intel-based Macs than did the previous version, and it now officially supports Windows Vista. If you prefer to use Adobe’s Camera Raw plug-in with Photoshop, you may be as irked as we were to find out that Adobe forces you to upgrade to Photoshop CS3 or Photoshop Elements 5.0 if you want to use the latest update, which includes the 1D Mark III as well as Fuji’s FinePixS5 Pro, Nikon’s D40x, Olympus’ E-410 and SP-550UZ, and Sigma’s SD14. That’s a mean piece of corporate tomfoolery on Adobe’s part, especially considering the fact that pro-level photographers who would use the 1D Mark III helped make Adobe the powerhouse it is today. If you can’t yet justify the expense of upgrading to Photoshop CS3, remember that Elements costs significantly less and could serve as a quick way to get the new Camera Raw, especially for pros who may have decided against upgrading to CS3. Other third-party raw processors, such as the latest version of Bibble, have also begun adding support for the 1D Mark III, so if you decide against a CS3 upgrade, there are other options available.  

In addition to all the nice features of the camera body itself, the 1D Mark III is made to work with a very wide variety of Canon’s optional accessories. This includes an array of Speedlites; one of the most comprehensive assortments of lenses available today; the WFT-E2A wireless file transmitter, which lets you send files to a computer via the 802.11g wireless standard; and the OSK-E3 Original Data Security Kit, which lets you verify that images have not been tampered with. Of course, there are many more accessories, but listing them all here would be excessive.

As our testing analyst
Matthew Fitzgerald quipped, the Canon 1D Mark III is “a rocket ship.” The camera took 0.1 second to start up and capture its first JPEG, then took 0.4 second between shots when capturing subsequent JPEGs. When shooting raw, the camera took 0.5 second between shots. Shutter lag measured 0.4 second in our high-contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 1.1 seconds in our low-contrast test, replicating dim shooting conditions. Our lab tests were performed with Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. Continuous Shooting basically lived up to Canon’s 10-frames-per-second (fps) claim. We were able to capture full 10-megapixel JPEGs at a rate of 9.9fps with the camera set to its highest quality JPEG compression setting of 10. Canon’s claim is based on a lower compression setting of 8, but either way, it feels like you’re firing a machine gun (without the recoil or death) when you shoot with the 1D Mark III in high-speed Continuous Drive mode.  Just be warned, if you do shoot 10-megapixel images in Raw+JPG mode, you’ll fill up your CF or SD card extremely fast. Full size raw images from the Mark III can easily be 14MB or 15MB, while large JPEGs at the highest quality setting hover around 7MB.

The Mark III represents a major shift for Canon away from the nickel-metal-hydride battery found in previous 1D models (and stretching back to pro-level film bodies, too) to a new, much shorter, lithium-ion battery. The 2,300mAh battery looks almost identical to the one used in the Nikon D2Xs, though I wouldn’t try to interchange them. Canon rates the battery to provide up to 2,200 shots per charge, and though we didn’t test it, I believe them. After a full weekend of shooting many hundreds of shots in Raw+JPG mode, the battery hadn’t even drained halfway. Of course, along with the new battery comes a new charger, so professionals or companies that have invested in extra batteries and chargers for older 1D models may be annoyed to find that they have to buy new spare batteries and chargers. The charger that comes with the Mark III can charge as many as two batteries at once, though only one battery comes with the camera. 

Image Quality
Images shot with the Canon EOS 1D
Mark III can be absolutely stunning. Colors look extremely accurate, and the automatic white balance does an excellent job of neutralizing colors under a variety of lighting situations. The only times it became confused was in situations in which there was mixed lighting, and even then it produced pleasing, if not absolutely spot-on results. If paired with a sharp lens, the 1D Mark III can produce images with a vast amount of fine detail.  However, where this camera really shines is its ultralow noise. Even at its highest sensitivity setting of ISO 6,400, we were able to make pleasing prints. On a monitor you’ll see a covering of fine, multicolored grain, but there’s still an impressive amount of shadow detail and finer detail, especially for such an extreme setting. At lower sensitivities, images are extremely clean, and noise doesn’t even begin to show up significantly on monitors until you reach ISO 800  If you can afford the cost of the 1D Mark III, and are a Canon shooter who doesn’t absolutely need the higher resolution of the 16.6-megapixel 1Ds Mark II, then this camera is a no-brainer. Nikon shooters who are reading this might even begin to second-guess their beloved brand, but with rumors flying about a possible D3, you’ll probably want to wait and see if Canon’s top competitor can match this. It’s going to be extremely difficult, though, as this is one of the best digital cameras I’ve ever used.

Canon PowerShot TX-1

July 16, 2007

Every now and again, a company will make a product just to turn some heads; sometimes this is called a statement piece. Usually these products sport unusual designs and fantastical feature sets. With its PowerShot TX-1, which includes a 10x optical zoom lens, 7.1 megapixel CCD sensor, optical image stabilization, face detection, and the capability to record high-definition 1,280×720-pixel video at 30 frames per second, Canon was definitely trying to make a statement. However, the camera’s vertical design makes it so difficult to use, we wish they wouldn’t have blurted it out so quickly.

In many ways similar to the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD2, the Canon TX-1 uses a vertical design with the lens at the top of the body and is intended to be held as you would a pistol. Unlike a pistol, the trigger, or in this case the shutter release, sits on top of the camera body. This unfortunate placement and the body’s blocky overall design lead to many of the camera’s ergonomic problems. With my middle finger tucked awkwardly beneath the lens and my index finger on the shutter release, my pinky ended up dangling beneath the camera, and I didn’t know where to put my thumb. A trio of raised dots to the left of the zoom rocker beckoned to my thumb, but with it placed there, I inevitably nudged the zoom and ruined my composition. Plus, that positioning also placed my thumb squarely across the video recording button, forcing me to continually worry about inadvertently pressing it. Also, since Canon placed the zoom rocker on a rounded protrusion on the camera back, you have to pull your thumb back into an uncomfortable position to manipulate the control. Worse yet, trying to shoot a vertical still picture is an exercise in contortion. Ultimately, we didn’t look forward to shooting with the TX-1’s strange controls. Sanyo’s design, which places both video and still shutter buttons on the camera back and includes an angled grip, felt much more comfortable, though its video couldn’t compare to the footage we captured with the TX-1.

Shooting video with the TX-1 felt much more comfortable, though still not as cozy as the Sanyo. The TX-1’s small 1.8-inch screen, compared to the HD2’s larger 2.2-inch screen may have something to do with this fact. Also, the camera’s dual functionality occasionally has its drawbacks. For example, with the still image mode set to super macro, the zoom is understandably disabled, but it remains disabled if you start shooting video while still image mode is engaged. On the upside, Canon’s menu controls carry over the intuitive design and quick access to important functions, that we’ve come to love in their other cameras and camcorders. A quick press of the tiny joystick lets you access features such as shooting mode, ISO, image size, exposure compensation, and white balance. You won’t find aperture-priority, shutter-priority, or full manual exposure modes, but Canon does include seven preset scene modes, such as portrait, beach, snow, and night snapshot, which automatically set the camera to deal with those shooting situations. In addition to those shooting modes, the TX-1 includes some nifty functions to help make shooting a bit easier. Optical image stabilization helps keep your shots steady and becomes especially useful when using the long end of the 10x optical, 39mm-to-390mm-equivalent, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 zoom lens. In our still image field tests we were able to shoot more than two full shutter speeds slower than we normally do with adequately sharp results. For example, when zoomed to an equivalent of 118mm, we shot a sharp photo at a shutter speed of 1/20 second while hand-holding the camera, whereas we’d normally need to use a tripod to shoot at that shutter speed. For video, the image stabilization helped, but as with most camcorders, it wasn’t effective enough over the full range of the zoom. When shooting at full 10x zoom, you’ll want to use a tripod or a monopod to get steady footage.  

If you feel you need to quickly boost your sensitivity to raise the shutter speed, Canon’s Auto ISO Shift will boost the ISO with a single button press but caps the sensitivity at ISO 800 in an attempt to keep ISO noise at bay. To help with portraits, Canon includes a rather effective face-detection mode. Unlike some companies, which give face detection a dedicated button, Canon places it at the top of its menu.

In our lab’s performance tests, the TX-1 turned in mediocre results. The camera’s built-in lens cover and extending lens barrel must slow down the start-up a bit, because the TX-1 took 1.82 seconds to start up and capture its first JPEG. After that, it took 1.99 seconds between JPEGs with the flash turned off, and 3.3 seconds between JPEGs with the flash turned on. We were impressed with the shutter lag though, which measured 0.55 second in our high contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 1.2 seconds in our low-contrast test, which mimics dim shooting conditions. Regardless of image size, the TX-1 captured 1.04 frames per second in our continuous shooting tests.  

Image quality wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from Canon. Overall, video turned out better than stills though. The footage we shot wasn’t perfect, but was sharper than footage from the Sanyo HD2, and while the TX-1’s footage did have its fair share of compression artifacts, it certainly had fewer than the HD2, especially on edges of objects, and showed a significantly wider dynamic range than the Sanyo. The reason for Canon’s edge in video quality most likely has to do with the fact that the TX-1 uses Motion JPEG compression instead of MPEG-4. Of course, Motion JPEG also consumes more memory than MPEG-4. A 1-minute 720p clip we made took up about 267MB on our SD memory card. Both the Canon and Sanyo lagged a bit on focus compared with a dedicated camcorder, though again, the Canon edged out the Sanyo. Overall, if you’re looking to capture really good HD footage, you’ll need to step up to a dedicated HD camcorder, such as the Canon HV20 or the Sony Handycam HDR-HC7.

Still images showed more ISO noise and image artifacts than we’re used to with Canon’s digital still cameras. We also saw other image artifacts, which turned some curved lines and angled lines jaggy. Colors looked accurate overall, and we saw a decent amount of finer detail, but the images weren’t as tack sharp as many of the company’s cameras from recent years. Noise doesn’t become very significant until ISO 400, but we saw some on our monitors with the sensitivity as low as ISO 100, though you most likely won’t notice it in prints. At ISO 400, noise becomes obvious on monitors, starts to show up in prints, and begins to chew up some of the finer detail, though dynamic range remains largely intact. At ISO 800, noise becomes a heavy blanket of fine snowy specks, obscuring lots of finer detail and eating up more dynamic range. At ISO 1,600, most fine detail is destroyed by the vast snowy blizzard of tiny speckles, and dynamic range is crunched to the point of obscuring most shadow detail. We suggest staying below ISO 800 when possible.

If you absolutely have to have a combo still camera/720p HD camcorder, the Canon PowerShot TX-1 is probably the best bang for the buck. Its two serious competitors, the Sanyo Xacti HD2 and Panasonic SDR-S150 both cost significantly more, and in the case of the Sanyo, you get lower quality video and stills but a more comfortable-to-use design. Ultimately, you’re still better off buying separate video and still cameras, though maybe someday combo devices like this will reach a point when they’ll make sense for the casual vacation shooter. Despite all that, we do have to commend Canon for having the guts to push ahead with an experimental product like the TX-1.

Fujitsu LifeBook T4220 (Core 2 Duo 2GHz, 1GB RAM, 80GB HDD, Windows XP Tablet Edition)

July 16, 2007

With four tablet models in its catalog, Fujitsu offers something for every potential tablet user. The LifeBook T4220, a Centrino Duo update to its earlier T4215 model, is targeted at users who want all the performance and features of a full-fledged laptop with added handwriting functionality. In that light, the LifeBook T4220 largely succeeds: it offers nearly every feature you’d expect on a thin-and-light laptop plus a sizable display for writing and lengthy battery life. However, its performance on our benchmarks was mixed; its paltry allotment of RAM held it back on one of our tests–though the fault is easily fixed with a $150 upgrade. While not as elegant as the Lenovo ThinkPad X61 Tablet (which lacks a built-in optical drive), the highly configurable LifeBook T4220 is a solid choice for business users who want a tablet PC without compromise.

While the LifeBook T4220 falls in the middle of the weight range for a thin-and-light laptop, it is a bit hefty for a tablet; we were able to cradle it in one arm, clipboard-style, but never for more than a few minutes. Like most tablets larger than a UMPC, the LifeBook T4220 seems best for those who want to take handwritten notes while sitting at a desk or conference table.

The LifeBook T4220’s 12.1-inch display offers a native resolution of 1,024×768. That resolution and its standard (4:3) aspect ratio are rather ho-hum compared to the wide-screen displays found on most thin-and-light laptops, but we appreciated the T4220’s larger type and icons while we were navigating with the stylus. Our review unit’s price includes an indoor/outdoor display that provides excellent off-angle viewing and is readable in a variety of different lighting conditions, including summer afternoon sun. (If you’re likely to only use your tablet in typical work environments, you can save $150 by opting for a standard display finish.) While most tablets include a small slot in the base so you can tuck the stylus out of sight, the LifeBook T4220’s stylus sits in full view on the left side of the display bezel–a somewhat unattractive design that nevertheless keeps the stylus within easy reach. A number of other features around the bezel help you navigate when the computer is in tablet mode: a fingerprint reader for quick and keyboard-free log-ons, plus buttons for Alt, Fn, page up, and page down.

While its predecessor featured a bidirectional swivel, which let you twist the screen in any direction you like, the LifeBook T4220’s display swivels in only one direction. When you rotate and fold down the display, the computer automatically locks the laptop’s optical disc drive and rotates the screen 90 degrees into portrait mode. A button alongside the display also lets you manually adjust the screen orientation, though only two ways; other systems, such as the ThinkPad X60 Tablet, allow you to choose any screen orientation. We found this to be oddly limiting, until we noticed that the LifeBook T4220’s vents could get quite hot–the two screen direction options ensure that you don’t try to hold the vent side against your body.

Writing on the LifeBook T4220 was comfortable enough for quickly scribbled notes but not ideal for writing a lengthy document: the stylus lacks heft, and we wish the writing surface offered a little more resistance. We found the stylus responsive, however, and loved the eraser feature on top, which works exactly like a pencil eraser; though the eraser isn’t unique to Fujitsu, we consider it a key feature for any tablet stylus. When not using the system in tablet mode, the amply sized keyboard and rectangular touch pad function well, although the keys are somewhat loud. We appreciate that even the heaviest key strokes weren’t enough to make the LifeBook T4220’s display wobble. We also love the scroll button, located between the laptop’s two mouse buttons, which let us coast through long documents and Web pages with ease.  

The Fujitsu LifeBook T4220 has a more or less average selection of ports and connections for a thin-and-light laptop, though it does lack a mini-FireWire jack. An ExpressCard slot would have been nice as well, especially if you want to add mobile broadband later on (Fujitsu does not offer a built-in WWAN radio, even as an option). We do like the LifeBook T4220’s integrated smart card reader, which lets you add a level of security beyond just passwords. And we appreciate the port covers that keep dust and debris out of some (but, strangely, not all) of the laptop’s ports. As would be expected on a work-oriented tablet, the LifeBook T4220’s stereo speakers produce extremely tinny sound.

As befitting a laptop built on Intel’s latest Centrino Duo platform, the $2,249 Fujitsu LifeBook T4220 performed well on CNET Labs’ mobile benchmarks. Its performance equaled or exceeded that of the $2,102 Gateway E-265M and the $1,499 Lenovo 3000 V200. One notable exception: the LifeBook T4220 trailed far behind both systems and even a previous-generation Dell XPS M1210 on our Photoshop test. The most likely culprit is the Fujitsu’s paltry allotment of RAM–half as much as the competing systems. If you’re likely to do resource-intensive tasks beyond Web surfing and pounding out memos, you should consider upgrading to at least 2GB of RAM, which will add $150 to the price.

The Fujitsu LifeBook T4220 lasted an impressive 2 hours, 41 minutes on our resource-intensive DVD drain test; this test is especially grueling, so you can expect longer life from casual Web surfing and office use. The Dell XPS M1210 managed to last longer than the LifeBook T4220, but the Dell also included a much larger battery. The Lenovo 3000 V200 included similar components (with the exception of a slightly slower processor) and lasted only 2 hours, 16 minutes.

Fujitsu covers the system with a one-year warranty. Support is available through a 24-7, toll-free phone line, and technicians can connect to your computer over the Internet to diagnose problems. Standard Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and driver downloads also are available. Adding an extra year of service costs $100, and upgrading to next-business-day on-site service is an additional $50 per year. Fujitsu is also unique among laptop vendors in offering a no-questions-asked Screen Damage Protection Plan that costs $150 for one year and $383 for three years.