Hipstamatic – a new iPhone toycamera app

I was going to write about this on PositiveMachine.com, but decided to contribute a properly useful review to the iTunes store instead. I am republishing it here for those not using the Singaporean App Store, in the hopes that it brings some attention to this rather exciting new camera app. My one sore point: it is sooo very close in execution to an iPhone app I wanted to have built earlier this year. A different concept, but maybe someday I’ll convince the guys at Synthetic Corp to take it up.

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Hipstamatic

I discovered this app by accident whilst absentmindedly searching for the keyword “Holga”. The preview screenshots in iTunes don’t do it justice.

It’s also the first camera application I’ve seen with in-app purchasing, which made me quite wary of this being something I might become tempted to sink a lot of money into, unnecessarily, over time. Everyone else gives free updates with more features, why should this be any different? The answer might be that the app itself is very different. It features a polished user experience that almost puts a real, no-longer-in-production camera in your hands, and the quality of its image processing is superb – some of the best I’ve ever seen on the iPhone. Its creators no doubt know that photography geeks are more than a little bit vulnerable to buying new equipment for a camera they love, and in-app purchasing is a brilliant way to exploit that. What’s 99c for a new lens, 3 colored gel flashes, and a new black border on all your pictures? If only things were so cheap in the real world with Lomography and Superheadz products.

But freshly installed, one can get some brilliant results out of the two included “lenses” (film choice only affects the borders/frames, except in the case of the single B&W option available in one of the in-app purchase packs), but I’m willing to bet you’ll be so impressed with the whole experience that you’ll pick up one of the extra add-ons within a day. So budget for the price of the app (currently at $1.99, a so-called introductory price) plus 2 x $0.99.

More than any other photography app out there – and I have bought more of them than I’d have liked – this one gives you the feeling of owning a whole new camera. The UI design is a big part of this. You constantly see the front and back of the camera as you change settings and take photos. You have a tiny and inaccurate preview of your shot where the viewfinder is supposed to be. You don’t change the look of your photos by moving sliders or pressing radio buttons, you swap in visual representations of “films”, “lenses”, and “flashes”. Sure, it’s little different from any other photo app under the surface, except the results are up there with the best of them, but that surface gloss makes you forget Hipstamatic is taking shots through your iPhone’s camera. And the results back that up. Night shots taken with the “Jimmy” lens and the fake flash are soaked through with warm light, almost devoid of speckled color noise. It’s the kind of result you’d expect from a film camera that left its shutter open until the film was fully exposed. Marvelously rich and much more analog than you’d have thought was possible from an iPhone.

Moreover, like ShakeItPhoto before the last update, Hipstamatic doesn’t give you the option of processing photos you’ve already taken with some other app or the built-in camera module. I wouldn’t like to see this behavior in every app, but it makes perfect sense here and really sells the illusion of a unique toy camera with risks involved. You don’t get a safety shot, you just get the one you take, which makes every shot somewhat precious. It also gives you a bit of a heart attack when you’ve captured something you think might be great, and then the app crashes. It does this quite a lot when saving at the highest resolution of 1050 x 1050px, even on my freshly-rebooted iPhone 3GS. I’m hoping the next update brings more stability, but even so, this fully deserves a five-star rating today.

On taking holiday photos

Back from Japan and already making plans to learn the language and move over. Only half-kidding. I don’t think I could take the grind of commuting to a crushing office job every day, even with the weekend salve of maid cafes and pachinko. It’d have to be a work from your tiny home sorta job.

Since I left talking about cameras, I’ll come back to the subject. The Sony WX1 held up really well and I took more photos with it than with the Panasonic Lumix LX3. Having it just two seconds away in my pocket at any time made all the difference. I think it’s my new favorite camera for casual street use. It struggled under tricky lighting conditions though, and couldn’t really handle park/nature scenes with shadows and subtlety. Comparing it with such shots from the LX3 really shows up its weaknesses.

I usually have a two camera limit, but the iPhone’s camera complicates things, and I bought a Digital Harinezumi 2 from the Superheadz Camera Cabaret store in Shibuya (truly fantastic little place – here are some directions: Go north from the Tokyu Hands store, and it’s just across the street from the Ward Office (and the Shibuya Tobu Hotel). You’ll find it up a little road on the right leading towards the two Beams boutiques. The store itself is on the right, before you reach Beams, after the popular ramen shop with the logo that looks like the number 9 in Chinese. [九]) In all, I took about 2,200 photos with four cameras.

Editing these poses many problems, as you might imagine. My approach now is just to shoot the hell out of everything. Multiple shots with different exposure settings, use the widest angles and the longest zooms, a few safety shots if people get in the way, and sometimes if a place feels interesting, just take a few shots in case I find something later in them to crop to. Sometimes along the way I’ll delete a few hopeless ones from the camera, but there isn’t always time. But when I get home, paralysis sets in. I can’t remember why I took a particular photo. Or I’m afraid to cut out too much of it. I try to reverse-engineer my intentions from the composition. Why is this shot this way, why is that the subject? I don’t dare to delete anything once home because every photo is an artifact of a place I cannot soon revisit, and must be preserved. I forget that sometimes I didn’t know what I was doing.

I think the answer is to treat holiday photography like a two-stage process. It’s not just shooting and cleanup. Postprocessing is like shooting the photos all over again, with possibly different intentions. You have to go into it ready to make the effort. When you’re walking all the time and can’t afford to stop and study the angles and plan the perfect shot that will represent the atmosphere of a place, you just have to shoot everything and do the best you can in 30 seconds. Once back, you have to start over with new eyes and not work backwards.

One obstacle to this is always your own memory. It colors everything and makes unimportant, uninteresting things seem worth sharing. Ideally, I’d only post about a hundred photos from the two thousand shot, but right now I’d be happy to come in under 600. I suppose a second round of culling the best into another Flickr set can happen later. I’m quite certain other people have the same problem, especially teenagers, as evidenced by most Facebook photo albums. Most casual photographers post everything, similar shots and bad shots along with their best. Completionists and hoarders have it worst, and I know I’m a little bit of both.

Anyway I’ll post a link to the full photoset here when I’m done. At the moment I’m uploading as I go along, but might make some more of the poorer choices private as I go.

— Posted from my iPhone

Going to Japan

Leaving for Japan tomorrow with a couple of friends. It’s a trip we’ve talked about for the last two years but never got around to actually booking until now. Long-time readers will remember that I set up a wiki on this domain back in 2007 for notes on things to see/eat in Tokyo. I think we cancelled for a number of reasons, one of them probably being that I’d just left my job and wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Coincidentally, one of us going on this trip has just quit his. Some people like to go on long, liberating holidays after quitting. I’m far too conservative with money for that. Oh did I mention that I’ve just bought a new camera for this trip?

I really didn’t need it, because I’ve still got my Panasonic Lumix LX3, which is by far the best non-SLR digital camera I’ve ever owned, apart from being a bit of a fatty. The Sony WX1, on the other hand, is as small as my Canon IXUS 80, but with a 24mm wide-angle lens and low-light performance that beats the rather noisy LX3. The only way around color noise on the LX3 is to shoot no higher than 400 ISO, but you’ll need steady hands for that. Sadly, the WX1 only offers 4:3 shooting; the other aspect ratios are just crops. But once you see how clean its handheld night shots are, you’ll want one too.

I just thought I’d put that out there in case anyone was thinking of buying the same. It’s a good pocket companion to a more prosumer camera like the Canon G11, S90 or Panasonic LX3. It’s lack of manual controls will keep you from using it exclusively, while small and fast enough to rely on when the other one’s at home/in the bag. I swore off Sony cameras a couple of years ago because they were a bit of a pain to use and had poor outdoor white balance with our local lighting conditions. But this one is an easy recommendation so far (as long as you turn the Dynamic Range Optimization function off).

This is a photo of what I had at lunch today, virtually untouched from the camera.

Roast pork belly

I should have more when I get back in two weeks. Mata ne.

M1, StarHub, and Apple’s iPhone exclusivity

Using network growth to fight Android’s ubiquity

Earlier today, StarHub announced their plans to offer the iPhone before the end of the year. Set aside for a moment that feeling of deja vu, when it does happen, Singapore will be one of few countries (if not the only?) to have the iPhone on all its nationwide carriers.

I’m not interested in the telco strategy here, which is obviously to prevent bleeding customers over to the other guy with the iPhones. Apple seems to be doing this all across its international markets. In the UK, O2 lost its exclusive rights after about two years, and you can now get the smartphone from Vodafone too. AT&T loses its three-year rights next June. I see that as the deadline for these expansion plans. Apple appears to be expanding its reach in anticipation of June, which will likely bring a new iPhone model that could possibly work with another major US carrier’s network. Or two.

The iPhone’s current greatest weakness isn’t the lack of a physical keyboard, camera flash, multitasking, or all those other things Verizon’s first iDont (sic) ad pointed out – it’s the network exclusivity. Many people want one, but won’t switch to AT&T/Singtel/etc. for countless personal or practical reasons. Verizon sees its rival’s weaker 3G network as the button to hit, and hits it three times with these new ads, also launched today. The Android platform has catered largely to people wanting an alternative to the iPhone on other networks by making itself available on a (promised) raft of devices. In Singapore, M1 and StarHub have spent the last cold, quiet year pushing Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Android smartphones to customers in lieu of the iPhone. I don’t believe Apple sees the first two as threats. Android is beginning to look like competition, which is a good thing.

But it’s clear that people hate AT&T’s service quality. Unreasonable tariffs have also inspired similar feelings of animosity around the globe, towards Singtel, Rogers, and so on. Continuing the way they were, iPhone sales might have stalled. This latest round of international market expansion, culminating in a new US carrier next year, is probably their most visible play at limiting Android adoption.

What I mean is this: Given the choice between an iPhone and an Android phone in the same store, the data shows most people will choose the iPhone. What further kills Google’s mobile OS is the fact that I can’t see either M1 or StarHub, having blown a huge wad of cash to secure the iPhone in 2009, spending too much time or money promoting alternative phones in 2010. The long wait has made them hungrier and more eager to extract gains from this last-minute victory, and they’re going to be pushing the iPhone as hard as Singtel did when it was given exclusive rights last year, if not harder. Apple is notoriously good at playing suppliers against one another to get better deals, so it’s no surprise that they’d do it to their retail partners too.

Void Deck Checkers/Draughts

Checkers

Checkers

Walking around Toa Payoh, I came across an area where groups of old men apparently gather to play checkers quite regularly, drawing audiences. I suppose it’s the local equivalent of playing chess in a park.

I talked to one of the regulars who, as far as my limited Mandarin suggests, told me that they were playing for several hundred dollars a game, and wagers used to run as high as $1000 in the old days. I didn’t see any piles of money by the board, so there’s no way of knowing if he was just kidding me.

These two men had the largest crowd of spectators, and continued playing long after the others had packed up for the day.

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A couple more photos from earlier that day:

Checkers

Checkers

PositiveMachine.com – iPhone app reviews

I’ve had a lot of fun writing my iPhone app reviews over these past few weeks, and many of you have said rather kind things. Most surprising of all was the number of developers who wrote me to say how much they enjoyed my comments, but could not publicly link to them because they were too crude or awesome or whatever. Well, the price for encouraging me is always a terrible one.

Today, I’m putting out a new site (PositiveMachine.com) dedicated to iPhone app reviews. All the previous ones have been republished, and new ones will no longer be appearing here and getting in the way of more important things, like what fattening crap I’ve eaten or who I got into a fight with online. There’s a new write-up of RunKeeper up now, if you’re into fitness. Even if you’re not, you might want to take a look. It’s not like you have anything better to do. I mean, dude, you’re reading my blog.

Thanks again to Yi Jun for the lovely robot. His name is Optimist Prime.

Burger King Whopper Bar Singapore opening

Photos from tonight's launch. Open to the public from tomorrow afternoon.

I have to say I'm extremely excited about the opening of the world's third Whopper Bar right here in Singapore, after the ones in Orlando and Munich. Ordering can be a little tricky, but you basically start from a 1-3 patty burger, and add on your choice of 24 condiments and premium toppings. Examples include nacho chips, fried onions, steak sauce, several kinds of cheese, cut chillies, and jalapenos. They're also the first such restaurant here to serve beer, with a can of Tiger only costing an additional $2 on top of a value meal.

I had a Double Sweet Mexicana Whopper, only to be told later that it was designed to appeal to women. BK needs to do a little more market research because I don't know any women who would eat that. I'm appalled that it was even served without an ambulance standing by. Anyhow, I ordered another custom Mushroom Swiss Whopper approximation after that to wash down my two Tigers. (I didn't run all of last week for nothing.)

The BK Whopper Bar concept restaurant is at Clarke Quay, beside The Arena club, and stays open till at least 3 am.

See and download the full gallery on posterous

iPhone app review: Ramp Champ

(This iPhone review and others like it have been moved to my new app review site, positivemachine.com. Why not have a look?)

Ramp Champ (Game)

Price: $1.99
What it is: A carnival of sadomasochism.

Every retirement home has one old man who used to be a championship boxer, tough enough to still knock out two young men bigger than him. Likewise, every group of cowed nerds has among their numbers one who will eventually arm up and shoot up the school in a black trenchcoat. Ramp Champ has a lot in common with these people.

It lives amongst the feeble pursuits most call “casual games”, a candycoated term cooked up by executives to describe alternative entertainment for normal people – those don’t play first-person shooters and airplane simulations eight hours straight at a time – or as we like to call them, “games for pussies”. But don’t be fooled by the company it keeps. Ramp Champ is a prison-hard motherf*cker. I suspect it broke out of hardcore gaming prison and into casual gaming prison just because it was bored.

Ramp Champ is like the serial killer who wears thick glasses and tucks his striped shirt into his pants and talks with a feigned speech impediment and holds a boring desk job at a government agency, but really goes home every night and becomes like Christian Bale or something, with ripped muscles from pumping rusty iron in his basement and hunting animals in the woods naked.

So what looks like an innocent game of skeeball is actually an elaborate psychology experiment. I mean, it must be! The physics simulation suggests that you have full control over where the ball goes, if you’re good enough, and then when you need to score the most, it lets some blind Parkinson’s patient take over the shot. But sometimes, it does exactly what you expect, making the time spent smearing goat’s blood on your own face seem completely worth it. It frustrates, it makes a mockery of your so-called skills, and it’s completely addictive. I know because I’ve mastered it at the cost of my sanity.



Slammer Rating: 4/5 shivs

Buy Ramp Champ in the iTunes App Store.


Above: What you’ll see when you become a ramp champ. Each of the levels’ three goals filled in with a yellow dot.


Peanut Butter & Condensed Milk Thick Toast


From a Hong Kong-style cafe we had a late dinner at tonight. It’s been awhile since I made myself a peanut butter sandwich, and I’ve never plastered on as much as they did here. It makes for a saturated taste sensation, like melting a block of great chocolate in your mouth after a glass of whisky, except this probably had a thousand calories from being finished with lashings of condensed milk. It was like a post-apocalyptic PB landscape turned into a nutty archipelago by tidal waves of artery-clogging dairy effluence. I say that now, as I sit here with heartburn and the weight of a distended belly on my lap, but it was really good at the time.

Kinokuniya Moleskine notebooks


See and download the full gallery on posterous

The Kinokuniya chain of Japanese bookstores seems to have commissioned its own line of Moleskine notebooks. They carry more of those things than any other store in Singapore that I’ve seen, from the graphed sketchbooks to weekly planners. Lots of little things get on my nerves – I’ve just come to accept that this is how my life is much harder than yours – and people pronouncing the name “mohl-skin” is one of them. I don’t even like the damned things. They are the notebook equivalent of Lomo cameras, or tall burgers. The lines often aren’t drawn evenly from top to bottom (a defect that also plagues paper products from the “Prints” chain of stores in Singapore, despite their ridiculously high prices), the covers aren’t even leather (just saying, because many people seem to think they are), and the vertical elastic band isn’t as useful as, say, Ciak’s horizontal bands that can hold pens. I really miss having an Ordning & Reda store here. Those were expensive notebooks that at least came close to justifying their prices.