Side effect of reviewing gadgets: a largely gadget-free Christmas

Since I see so much gadget coverage timed for the holiday season–and have contributed a fair amount of it in the past–I have to assume that normal people give and get gadgets around the holidays.

Present ornament

But I am not normal! I understand why I rarely get the output of the electronics industry as a present; if a friend worked as a chef, I’d feel intimidated trying to buy kitchen gadgets or cookbooks. And as a freelancer, anything that I could use on the job should come out of my budget so it can land as an expense on my Schedule C at tax time.

But I also rarely buy myself gadgets as presents, even when there’d be no reasonable work connection. For that I blame the advent of CES: Knowing that I’m going to get a peek at the next six months to a year of the electronic industry’s handiwork two weeks after Christmas makes me leery of any non-trivial gadget purchases in the month before.

So what do you get for friends or family in the same disreputable profession that still acknowledges their professional interest? Cheap and non-obvious accessories can work. One of the better gadget-related gifts I ever got was a tiny, silicone smartphone stand that attaches to the phone’s back with a suction cup. It’s helped me stage more than a few phone pictures–and as a bonus, our toddler enjoys sticking it on my forehead.

Of you can try to make your gadget-reviewing pal’s business travel a little more pleasant: Figure out what airline he or she flies most often and buy a day pass to its lounges.

Edited 12/14/2013 to remove a stray sentence fragment.

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Feed me, see more (The Magazine meets BuzzFeed)

This story originally ran in issue 15 of The Magazine. You can now read it here by virtue of that publication’s impressively author-friendly contract.

One of the Web’s most popular sites — and the exceedingly rare media property soaking up tens of millions of dollars in venture-capital financing — gets much of its content without asking permission to use it, much less paying for it.

The Magazine BuzzFeed coverThat’s not news. But if you talk to some of the people whose images wind up in BuzzFeed’s endlessly clickable and heavily clicked-upon photo galleries, you may have your expectations overturned, as mine were: most say thanks for the exposure.

BuzzFeed at first looked like an appropriator that took value without returning it, irritating professional photographers who find their work both increasingly valued and increasingly used without compensation. But on closer inspection, BuzzFeed may be finding its way toward a safer course — a careful combination of conventional licensing and curatorial selection.

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Taking gadget-porn photos

One of the lesser-known joys of my work is the chance to take pictures of the gadgets I review. It gives me a chance to exercise whatever photographic talents I may possess, and it frees my editors from running the same PR-provided shots or stock images that every other site can get.

But it’s taken me a while to acquire some basic competence at this weird art form.

The most difficult part of the exercise–still–is keeping dust and reflections out of a shot. In the sort of close-up photos often required for gadget photography, grains of dust can look as big as cookie crumbs–except when you’re looking at the viewfinder or screen of a camera while taking the shot. Likewise, the glossy screens on almost every portable gadget are frighteningly efficient at reflecting overhead lights, nearby windows, any decor on the walls, and the camera itself.

I deal with dust by taking a microfiber cloth, the kind you get for free with a new pair of glasses, to the device I want to photograph–even if it looks pristine. Then I repeat the exercise. As for reflections, you can avoid some of them by angling the device’s screen in just the right direction. But it’s easier to prop up a large sheet of posterboard in a position where its expanse of white will be reflected on the screen. In rare cases, you can use a reflection for artistic purposes.

Posterboard also makes for a decent backdrop, but it doesn’t exactly add any excitement to the composition. Instead, sometimes I’ll hold a phone in front of an expanse of wall or window and let the shallow depth of field provided by a macro focus blur out that  scenery.

Not often enough, I will think of a background that’s both more interesting and actually relevant to the subject–like when I parked an Apple TV and a Roku receiver on top of a page of TV listings. Putting a digital device next to a comparable analog object can yield interesting results too.

Or I can shoot so tightly that you can’t see anything else but a detail on the back or the screen of a device. The trick is to ensure that only the relevant plastic or pixels is left in focus to command a viewer’s attention; it would help if more cameras included the tap-to-focus feature offered by some smartphones.

You don’t need much of a camera for this sort of photography. Anything with a decent macro-focus mode and optical image stabilization (to compensate for the longer exposure times needed for indoor shots) should work. That allows for most point-and-shoot cameras–I’ve taken most of the shots linked to here with the cheap Canon I bought in 2007–but I’ve gotten decent results with some phones and tablets too.

Whatever the model, don’t even think of using the flash. You will quadruple your dust and reflection problems and make the device look too pale. You want to avoid that kind of sloppy result whether you’re trying to provide an accurate illustration in a gadget review or you just want a non-ugly photo for eBay–which is where I started picking up on some of these lessons.

If you have other tips or suggestions, I’ll take them in the comments.

Post-CES travel tech recap, 2012 edition

One of the things I try to do after each CES–catch up on sleep, do laundry and cook for myself for the first time in a week–is note how the technology I took with me to the show worked out.

I did that in 2008, 2009 and 2010 for the Post, but apparently I was too wiped out after CES and the Verizon iPhone circus too repeat the exercise last year. This time around, I had a lot of new hardware on hand, and I was also able to switch out some of the software I’d used in previous years.

My laptop at this year’s show was the Lenovo ThinkPad X120E I bought in April. I continue to enjoy its light weight (3.3 lbs.) and extended battery life (four hours of nonstop work is no problem), and at a wireless-hostile show like CES it’s handy to have a laptop with a conventional Ethernet port.

But this ThinkPad is not a fast machine. At all. I’ve been planning to replace its hard drive with a solid-state drive, which should help a bit; in the meantime, it’s not a bad computer for writing and simple photo editing. And, hey, it only cost $500 or so.

About photos: After ditching Google’s Picasa a while back–it was too much work getting at edited photos from inside other programs–I usually alternate between Microsoft’s Windows Live Photo Gallery and Paint.Net. I used the latter app almost exclusively at CES for a reason irrelevant to most of you: Discovery News’s blog format requires specific photo sizes, and Paint.Net makes it easy to crop a photo to a set proportion.

The best photos I took came from the oldest hardware in the image above, the Canon A570 IS camera I’ve had since 2007. Once I got home, I used Apple’s iPhoto to upload everything to a Flickr set.

I carried my own phone, the battered HTC model at the bottom left of the photo, but used it much less often than the two review models above it, also Android-based: a Samsung Galaxy Nexus on Verizon and an LG Nitro HD on AT&T. I’ll save my full evaluation of both for later, but I will say I’m not the biggest fan of the Nexus for its battery drain, the two freeze-ups I could only cure by removing its battery, and its maddening failure to save a timestamp on several photos. The Nitro, in turn, suffered from LG’s puzzling and unnecessary alterations to the standard Android interface.

I took most of my notes on Twitter, which was terrific for real-time sharing but inconvenient afterwards. As noted before here, Storify is useless as an archiving tool, since I’d have to drag and drop 300 or so tweets one at a time; I may try TweetBackup instead. I didn’t use Evernote as much as in prior years, and this time around its utility was undercut when the app crashed a couple of times, taking my most recent input with it in each case. That raises a question: Why does its Android version have a “Save” button at all when the Windows and Mac editions save every keystroke automatically?

I took along one extra item, a Belkin travel surge protector. Being able to turn one outlet into three–plus two powered USB ports–simplified recharging everything in my hotel room. It was also an enormous help (and a good conversation piece) in crowded press rooms.

The luggage you see underneath is a messenger bag called an Airbeltbag that I got as a Christmas gift. Yes, that’s a real airline seat-belt buckle you see latching it closed. The TSA guy at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas and a publicist for the Tripit travel-planning app got a kick out of that, but I also appreciated that this bag will not accidentally open once you insert the metal fitting into the buckle. I just wish the zippered pocket on the outside had some pouches on its inside for pens and business cards.

If you have questions about any of this gear–or, more importantly, my coverage of the show, including the wrap-up I did for the Consumer Electronics Association this week–you can ask me in real time at tomorrow’s Web chat. It runs from noon to 1 or so at CEA’s blog. This will be my first live Q&A since my finale at the Post back in April, so I’m looking forward to it. Talk to you all then?

My next camera

Several years ago, I decided that my only practical response to the gadget industry’s unreasonable rate of obsolescence was to impose unreasonable purchase requirements of my own. That is, once I’d gotten comfortable with a phone, computer or other device, I would insist that its replacement vastly exceed its performance in a few significant ways–this way, I might wait longer to upgrade, but then I’d feel vaguely like I’d won.

I bought my current digital camera back in the summer of 2007, and by the usual camera metrics I’m clear to upgrade: I can easily get double the zoom lens as well as wide-angle capability, doubt the resolution, faster shot-to-shot performance, smart picture modes like automated panorama generation, and high-definition video recording with stereo sound. And this next camera would also be thinner than my current model (even if it probably wouldn’t take AA batteries).

Unfortunately, the camera on my phone–while inferior to my four-year-old “real” camera in every measure of picture quality–also geotags photos automatically and allows for near-instant sharing on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and any other online service with a phone-friendly site or app.

All this is to make clear my ulterior motive in trying out a round of cameras over the past few months, as written up for Discovery News on Monday. I’d hoped that a clear winner would emerge among the four models I tried there, three with built-in GPS–Canon’s PowerShot SX230 HS, Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-ZS10 and Casio’s Exilim EX-H20G–and one that borrows geotagging from a nearby Android phone, Samsung’s SH100.

(I also tried a fifth model, Nikon’s 36x ultrazoom P500, but wound up only having room to mention it in passing in the Discovery piece.)

No such luck. The Canon and the Panasonic ruled themselves out for sluggish GPS performance or bad battery life, while the conceptually-impressive Samsung flunked for its clumsy, expensive system of pairing with too-few Android phones. If I had to buy a phone among this bunch today, the Casio would be the likeliest to land on my credit-card bill–but I’m annoyed by the fact that I can’t recharge its battery by plugging the camera into a computer’s USB port or any other USB charger, much less the fact that Casio still seems to think it’s okay to use a proprietary USB plug in the year 2011.

But I’d also worry, given the average useful life of a camera, that in a year or so, we might finally see the camera-to-phone fusion prototyped in the Samsung done right. (Hint: Use Bluetooth instead of WiFi to avoid making the user pay for tethering on the phone.) So it’s easier for me to wait and limp along with my four-year-old model–which, aside from its eroding battery life, continues to take decent pictures. How much longer do you think I’ll be doing that? Any other cameras I should consider?