Personal Review of Motorola Droid

On Thanksgiving Day I accidentally put my MotoRazr cell phone through the washing machine. Granted the screen had slowly collected lint over the last year and a half, but in hindsight this probably wasn’t the best way to clean it out. Sadly this wasn’t the first time I’ve sent my phone through the wash, though I am hoping it will be the last. Anyway, after a very short and unmotivated diagnosis I declared the Razr dead and bought the new Droid on Black Friday.

Unlike most of the initial reviews, I’ve actually had a couple weeks to use it and see how it holds up in day-to-day life. Here are the notes I’ve made along the way:

  • The touch screen is very fast and responsive; it never lags!
  • Multi-touch would be a welcomed addition, particularly for zooming. The “double tap to zoom” feature isn’t awesome, though it’s not frustratingly horrible either.
  • Occasionally it scrolls down the page when you just try to tap something. I haven’t had this problem much lately, so I think it was just a matter of getting used to how it responds to your tap.
  • Android (the phone’s operating system) is VERY impressive! The innovation behind Google is something I already endorse every day via Gmail, Maps, Calendar, etc… Knowing they are behind my phone’s interface is very reassuring.
  • I love the way it syncs with my contacts from Gmail and Facebook. All of my Gmail contacts were showing up in the phone when I left the Verizon store.
  • Contact grouping minimizes repetition in your list. If you have multiple entries or email addresses for someone it will automatically combine them into a single contact. However, it did get rather confused when it saw that I have an uncle named Steve Elliot…
  • Until the most recent firmware (or Android) update on December 11th it had recurring problems syncing with google. The remedy linked above wasn’t working for me, and it kept giving me the error message. Fortunately it has worked flawlessly since the update. (This makes me VERY happy!)
  • The Android Market is abundant, though not as plentiful as the iPhone App Store.
  • There are three keyboards:
  1. Virtual Vertical: A bit too small for my fingers. I’ve gotten better with it, but I still can’t type as fast as I would like. It is however great for one-handed use.
  2. Virtual Horizontal: my personal favorite. I can access the buttons easily and the keys keep up with my typing as fast as I can go.
  3. Slide-out QWERTY: it’s all right, though not spectacular. I frequently hit multiple keys at a time (on accident) when typing on it. I do love the multi-directional arrow pad though. I will often slide the keyboard out just to use it. It makes it much easier to reposition the cursor wherever you need it.
  • The keyboards disappear when changing orientation, so you have to tap the text field to get it to pop up again.  This is mildly annoying.
  • Auto-complete is excellent and doesn’t get in the way. Ninety-five percent of the time it gives me exactly the word I meant to type. I don’t have to waste time correcting the idiocy of auto-complete.
  • The Body Glove case (optional accessory) is the perfect balance between a rubbery grip and a hard case. It’s nice that you can still slide out the keyboard, but it makes the top row of keys a bit harder to hit (for my big fingers). It makes the overall size of the phone appear much bigger than it really is. (I will be using the phone without the case for the next week to see which I prefer.)
  • Slide out keyboard means moving parts, which means more places for dust to creep in.
  • Dedicated “Back” button makes everything better.
  • Multiple windows in Browser is revolutionary! It works just like tabs in Firefox. It’s one of the best examples of Android’s ability to run multiple tasks/apps simultaneously.
  • Perfect response time for switching orientation to/from vertical to horizontal. No waiting and shaking like the iPhone.
  • The built-in LED flash is fantastic. I don’t care for the direct flash in my photos, but it can be used as a flashlight with some of the apps. It’s much brighter than a screen whiteout.
  • I wish it would allow one more row of icons on the home screen. There is a lot of wasted space –particularly if you use Widgets.
  • Names and info from your contacts are automatically added to the user dictionary. Makes life easier.
  • Speaker volume almost seems inconsistent. Sometimes it’s too loud and other times it’s not loud enough. (I guess there are a lot of variables to consider though –ambient noise, connection strength, recorded volume, etc…)
  • Screen resolution is very impressive. Sharp detail and easy readability. Bright enough to see clearly outside on a sunny day.
  • There needs to be an option to disable the camera sound. Unless you put the Media Volume on silent the camera’s “shutter” sound is loud and annoying.
  • Accelerated scrolling is very well weighted. Makes it very easy to get through a long list or page without a lot of finger flicks.
  • The Facebook app leaves much to be desired. It’s not intuitive at all. Just opens the browser for most commands.
  • I can “Bump” with iPhones, thus making me a part of the cool kids club.
  • The Chipotle app is not currently available for the Droid. …That is almost a deal breaker for me. =)

The obvious comparison: If the iPhone has taught us anything it’s that cell phones aren’t just for making calls any more. Ultimately it comes down to the various apps available, and currently Apple has a better offering.

The iPhone has proven that consumers are willing to put up with a second-rate carrier (AT&T) to get the bells and whistles of the hardware. Verizon finally has an impressive phone on their great network, but I don’t think anybody expects it to actually replace the iPhone. At least there is now a comparable alternative.

Conclusion: I LOVE the Droid! It’s been a remarkable tool for me, and has drastically increased my productivity. At the end of the day, it depends on what you’re looking for in a phone. I personally wanted to be able to check email, surf the web, and have GPS for local searches. I haven’t downloaded a single game, song, or movie on my Droid even though I can. It’s just not important to me right now.

If all of your friends have iPhones and you want to be like them, get an iPhone. If you’re on Verizon and want a great phone, get a Droid.

Free Capture Software for Nikon on the PC

Nikon makes Camera Control Pro, a nifty program that allows you to instantly capture and playback photos on your computer, completely bypassing the need for a memory card.  You can also control all the camera settings and even take photos directly from the computer.  The program retails for about $160; you can download a free 30-day trial too.

So that’s great.  I’ve been looking to purchase the software since my trial period ended, but I just couldn’t bring myself to shell out the cash for what seems to be an overpriced piece of software.  Fortunately, I don’t need to anymore.

Two days ago I heard about DCam Capture.  It’s a free program made by someone(s) in Germany.  I’m normally a little leery of stuff like this, but the first handful I comments I read said it was legit, so I decided to give it a shot last night.

…wow!

Did I mention you can record video with this?  That’s right, I recorded a video with my D300.  Love it!

Overall, the software is fantastic, but there are a couple things to keep in mind…

The Live View mode will only work for cameras that support it, so don’t expect to get that functionality out of your D40.

All of the cameras that do have Live View can use the software to record video. The quality can’t touch what you get from the D90, but for free software I’m not complaining! The resolution comes out to 640 X 426 –kind of an odd size, but great for shooting web videos. I still have a few questions about the frame rate and exposure values, but I will test those later. Also, there is no audio. It would be nice to see the program utilize your computer’s microphone, but I’ll cross my fingers and hope for that feature in a later release.

There were a couple glitchy issues with it on my Vista 64-bit machine. Namely, it took the program a long time to initialize when I plugged in my camera. It seemed non-responsive like it had crashed, but when I just waited it out, everything worked fine. It also did this after several minutes of non-use. I don’t know if the screen saver puts the software to sleep, or if it’s something else, but don’t expect to plug everything in and shoot a photo right away. The software takes a while to wake up. …maybe that’s why we get along.

Tethered shooting is not for everyone or every industry. Photojournalists, wedding, and wildlife photographers will not likely benefit from a tethered setup. However, if you watch behind-the-scenes videos for high-end commercial photo shoots you will notice that almost all of them are shooting tethered. Here’s a good list of reasons from a company who knows what they’re doing.

If you’re a Nikon user and you’re trying to figure out how to take your work to the next level, I would suggest looking into tethered shooting.  DCam Capture is a great place to start, and you can’t beat the price!

D300 At a Glance

I’ve had the D300 for a couple weeks, and I’ve only spent a few days shooting with it; so this review will certainly not be exhaustive. Nevertheless, there are some things that stood out right away that have definitely caught my attention. Good or bad, here’s my first impression of the D300. (Note, this review assumes moderate familiarity with camera terminology –nothing overly technical, but well beyond what the dude at Best Buy would tell you.)

I’ve shot with a D200 several times before, so most things were familiar to me. One of the first things I noticed (and liked) about the D300 was that you can change the direction of the +- exposure scale. For reasons unknown to me, Nikon puts the positive values on the left and the negative values on the right. That just seems completely backwards to me, so I was thrilled to find an option to flip the scale the other way.

On that same note, I also liked being able to switch the rotation directions of the two dials. Because I naturally think “Left=negative, right=positive” I found myself constantly setting the Exposure Compensation the wrong way. A simple switcharoo and now it feels intuitive and natural to me. (The caveat about switching the dials is that I now have to turn them the opposite way to shrink/increase the aperture/shutter. That, however, doesn’t bother me much at all.)

With the D300 Nikon has made some strides at separating focus from exposure, but it’s still not quite perfect. If I had it my way I would get ride of the useless AF-On button and make it an AF-Lock button instead. As it is, they have AE-Lock and AF-Lock in the same button –sure it works fine most of the time, but there are plenty of times when I’d like the extra control of locking the exposure separately from the focus.

As I see it, the single most frustrating thing about most cameras is that “It won’t take the picture! … Yes, I’m pressing the button all the way down, but it won’t take!” The problem is that the shutter won’t release unless it can establish a focus. The AF-Lock is a convenient way to override the settings in the camera and let you take the picture. The D300 does have an AF-Lock, but it’s one and the same with the AE-Lock. Yes, you can adjust various setting in the menu to change this, but the AF-On button cannot be customized. I think that is the single biggest shortcoming of the D300.

For the record, you can set the shutter to Release Priority rather than Focus Priority. However, when that setting is chosen the camera won’t give you the audible “beep beep” to let you know when it’s found a focus.

Even though I wish there were more things that could be customized I’ve got to give Nikon credit for the options that they have made available. For better or worse, I’ve customized my camera to the point where someone who is used to shooting with the default settings would not feel comfortable at all with mine. The beautiful thing though is that you can save your settings directly to a memory card, and then load them into another D300 and instantly be up and running the way you like. * I did this when I rented a D300 recently and it worked like a charm. Thanks for the time-saver, Nikon!

*You could conceivably copy those settings from the memory card, and then email them for someone else to plug into their D300. I haven’t tried this, but I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t work.

Just like the D200, you can save four different user-settings within the camera itself. Though the settings are more ideal to be used between different users, you could potentially create different setups to be used in different shooting environments like a studio, weddings, and sporting events.

Given my background with Minolta, I’m used to having a tactile control for everything. With the exception of creating folders and setting the flash to wireless, everything had a physical control, button, dial, switch, or knob. The D300 relies a little bit more on menu navigation, but it allows you to create a customized menu for easy access to those features you need to pull up every once in a while.

Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most is the battery life.  …it’s ridiculously awesome!  I shot a wedding for nine hours on a single battery. It didn’t even start giving me the low-battery warning.  The picture below shows the “Pic meter.”  It tells you how many pictures you’ve taken since you last changed the battery.  My Minolta gets about 400-450 shots per battery.  The D300 gets four times that!

NikonBattery-7697

It should be noted that I was shooting with the highest quality setting (14-bit RAW) for the above-mentioned 9 hours.  Speaking of RAW, I’m a huge fan of the “Lossless, Compressed” option for the NEF files.  It uses a reversible algorithm to store information, giving you considerably more mileage from your memory cards. In my experience, I can get about 550 compressed RAW files with no loss of quality on an 8 GB card.  The same card can only hold 303 uncompressed files.

As can be expected, the maximum frame rate drops to 2.5fps when you shoot at 14-bit RAW.  I did notice the frame-rate lag at times, but I’ve found the extra data to be well worth it.  I feel like I can pull much more information from the NEF files than I can out of Minolta’s MRWs.  I have yet to do some side-by-side comparisons though.

I don’t think this is new to the D300, but I love the White Balance Bias (or Fine Tuning). I often shoot in Auto WB, but I usually warm up the images in Lightroom just a hair.  The Fine Tuning option on the D300 allows me to shoot in Auto, but push the temperature up or down a little bit.  My initial reaction is that the AWB tends to err on the side of being a tad blue, but I haven’t shot with it enough to really give it a fair estimate.

Now for the playback screen.  It’s big and it’s crystal clear!  The increased resolution of the screen is truly remarkable. No longer do you have to wonder if the shot is really in focus, or how different it will look on a computer.  I was amazed at how much detail I could see in someone’s hair, and I’m also amazed at how big of a difference it makes.  Prior to using this camera I wouldn’t have thought the screen resolution mattered that much, but man, it comes through in a big way!

Also, the screen is more versatile on the D300.  Sure you can do the Live View mode, but I personally don’t think I’ll use it much.  It’s a bit too cumbersome for critical shooting anyway.  I do however really like being able to see my camera settings on the screen. Just like the control panel, it shows your shutter, f/stop, white balance, ISO, and all the other settings right on the back of the screen.  It’s most helpful when doing freestyle shots or when the camera is above eye level.

The Playback and Delete buttons have been moved right next to each other.  It’s a small change, but it feels much more intuitive.

My only request pertaining to the screen would be an option to see the Highlight warning along with a histogram. As it is, you can turn the Highlight notifications on or off, but they only show up on top of the full-screen image.  I would prefer to be able to see the image by itself, and then be able to view the image with highlights along with a histogram.

There are a host of new features that I’ve not mentioned here primarily because they don’t mean anything to me.  The 3D tracking is a nice idea, but I will probably always shoot with single-point autofocus.  Same with the Live View.  Picture Controls and Active D Lighting are probably great for people who don’t edit photos, but I use Lightroom extensively in my workflow.  I do like the Low-Pass filter, auto sensor cleaning; but I haven’t used it yet, so I can’t really say anything more about that.  And I’ve been impressed by it’s high signal-to-noise ratio, though I haven’t really pushed its limits yet.

Conclusion: the D300 is an amazing camera.  It doesn’t feel like last year’s camera with a new name.  It’s truly a new, better camera.  The battery life is extraordinary.  The screen is a thing of beauty.  The dynamic range of the 14-bit files is impressive.  And the options for customization allow you to make it your camera.  Sure there are a few things I would change if I could, but it really boils down to personal preference.  The added features and high price tag will ultimately save time and give me much greater creative control.