General Reviews

Dispo Day 1

You may have heard the buzz this week around the new beta version of Dispo, the app formerly known as David’s Disposable, as in Vine/YouTuber David Dobrik’s version of those camera apps that simulate the look (and sometimes also the experience of waiting for photos to develop) of disposable film cameras. David himself notoriously shoots his exciting life with tons of those cameras, so the app made sense as a spinoff business. It wasn’t the first of its kind on the App Store, and there were so many others with knockoff names like Huji (Fuji) and Gudak (Kodak). So while David’s fans probably used it, the first version of the app wasn’t thoughtfully designed or original enough to be an essential camera app. Now, the next version is being taken seriously with millions invested and a full-time team hired.

Side note: This reminds me that one of the first app ideas I had and sketched out in the early years of the iPhone was for something similar. Obviously I never had the guts to make it, which is the main gap between ideas and profit. I was thinking you could “buy” and load rolls of film into a camera (complete with having to thread the initial end bit onto a wind-up spool before shutting the door) and then send them off to the lab when you’d shot 36 or so images. And after an hour or a day had elapsed, you’d return to the app to see a yellow paper envelope slide across a store counter to you, and be able to tear it open to see your shots (and the included negatives). I remember feeling kinda bummed when the first camera app to do the enforced waiting time gimmick came out. It wasn’t as skeuomorphically cool. I think it was 1-Hour Photo by Nevercenter.

Anyway, Dispo 2.0 is currently in beta and I only just got in. My first batch of photos came out this morning at 9am (the predefined time for all photo deliveries), and they look fine. You get a lightly push processed, slightly cool-temperatured shot in a 16:9 aspect ratio. I don’t understand why it’s not 3:2 like normal 35mm film. The flash is on by default as a core part of the disposable aesthetic. All EXIF data is stripped out, including the actual time of capture.

There’s a lot to like here so far, but it’s also a little unusual as social apps go. The tutorial doesn’t cover some of its sharing features, so you have to figure them out. There are “rolls” that can be public or private, solo or with others. I suppose they are really “albums”. Before you shoot a scene, you may load multiple rolls in the camera that you would like to contribute the resulting photo to. Which breaks the metaphor of the film roll somewhat, because disposable cameras don’t normally shoot onto four rolls of film simultaneously (nor do they have replaceable film)! After a shot is developed, however, you can manually add it to any roll.

Each roll can only have 69 contributors, so the emphasis is on doing it with your friend group, but there’s no limit to how many members of the public can follow a roll and see it on their feeds. David Dobrik himself seems to be using rolls to capture short events, like throwaway albums, rather than as curated, ongoing thematic feeds like I see some others doing for their pet, food, or “good vibes” photography. Perhaps the idea is still being tuned, or maybe they’re fine with people using them however they like.

Beta testers are not supposed to share screenshots, so I won’t. But it’s an example of non-cookie cutter UX design that asks you to work a little to figure it out; Snapchat and at least one redesign of VSCO often get credited for attempting personality in a post-iOS 7 world. Outside of games, it seems it’s often camera/photo apps that still go for it.

On the other hand, Hipstamatic has devolved into such a confused and cluttered app that you have to really work to figure it out. No fun at all. I miss the old Hipstamatic, and Dispo looks like it might bring some of that magic back: you’re encouraged to shoot without chimping, frame loosely through a tiny viewfinder, and be happy with even the crappy shots.

It actually reminded me today that Hipstamatic once tried an app called DSPO, pretty similar in concept. You had virtual rolls of film that you’d have to shoot fully before developing, and you could invite friends to share a disposable camera in real time. Two people in two cities could shoot a roll of film together. I remember it crashed a lot for me, and it was a struggle to convince anyone to install it. So it failed. Good idea, wrong time and execution. At least amongst millennials and zoomers in the US now, Dispo seems to have avoided that trap: the TestFlight beta is fully subscribed.

Reviews Weeklies

Week 51.20 and AirPods Max review

  • Christmas is just next week now, so there’s a little more meeting up and eating out going on than usual. Although I’m still in the habit of logging every single expense in an app, I’ve decided not to look too hard at December’s outflow this year. Come to think of it, this approach may explain some of the back-and-forth below about whether the AirPods Max are worth keeping or not. Look, you’ve been warned. Skip it if you don’t care about headphone purchases.
  • We spent the weekend at a family staycation, which was another form of meeting up and eating out. Day drinking really doesn’t work for me. Have a glass of wine at lunch and it’s headaches and drowsiness somehow, but if I start after 6pm, everything’s good.
  • It wasn’t all lazing about the hotel. We went out to the National Gallery’s new retrospective on the work of Singaporean artist Georgette Chen (1906–1993), a name I’d never heard before despite what appears to be a fair amount of exposure in recent years, according to the linked Wikipedia article. I should probably consume more local media.
  • Earlier in the week, there was some meeting up and eating out with a couple of colleagues I hadn’t seen in awhile. As I learnt from Grace, you really haven’t got a chance with any bar and restaurant in town these days unless you make reservations, so that must be great for Chope and other similar booking platforms (assuming they’ve figured out workable business models). We wanted Korean BBQ but could only secure a spot at a 3.9-star Google reviewed place. It was a 3 at best, so I think there’s a need for some kind of review correction algorithm across multiple services. For example, I noticed on Foursquare (which has a much smaller user base) that users rating things in Singapore were pretty harsh, so you actually had to add to ratings to get an indicative score of quality. Google, with many more users, probably needs correcting down instead.
  • Speaking of ratings, I said a couple of weeks ago that I was reading Ready Player Two and hoped it would at least turn out to be a 2.5-star book. Well I finally got around to finishing it, and nope. I don’t remember anything about the first book, only the experience of it, that I had fun and enjoyed some of the references because it was the first time I’d seen some of them mentioned in a long while. But it turns out that’s really what Ernest Cline wants to do: string together loads of “geeky” references and get congratulated for it. This second book reads like third-rate fan fiction and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
  • According to Goodreads, that completed my 2020 Reading Challenge. 30 books this year, which I probably haven’t done in over a decade. With any luck, I’ll be able to surpass that next year if the universe grants me lots of free time.

AirPods Max

I got my pair a week ahead of their scheduled delivery date and it’s led to a lot of pointless pondering over the past few days. They sound really good. I did a couple of head-to-head comparisons and they’re the best pair of wireless headphones in my drawer. Everything older or cheaper doesn’t put up a fight in the sound quality department. Not any of the Sonys, Boses, Beats, or B&O Beoplays. I haven’t compared them to the Nurasound headphones yet, but I actually expect those to make a case for sticking around because they feel so physically different and immersive as a listening experience.

I’d love if they could just be The One, and help me declutter, but they fall short in a couple of areas outside of sound quality. The most minor of these is their goofy look with the mesh headband and rectangular cups. I got Space Gray and I don’t think I could be happy with any of the other colors if they got grubby or scratched up.

Comfort: They’re heavy as we knew, but it’s NOT been a big problem. What’s worse is they actually have more clamping force than I’d like. Granted, I have a larger than normal head and wear glasses, but can’t imagine being forced to wear these on an international flight. I once wore a pair of Bose QC35s for almost an entire 16-hour flight, and I’d do it again because although that older model doesn’t sound the best when you’re on the ground, they’re loose enough and the ANC is effective enough to make them perfect for in-flight use. The APMs just don’t work for that use case. I would say they’re actually too tight to even wear at home for more than a couple of hours, which is really sad.

Case/Portability: Everyone has complained about the design and construction of this enough and I have to agree. Their role in triggering the low-power mode complicates usability and their cheapening effect means we’d be happier if they’d left them out of the box completely. I’d much prefer if the headphones themselves could fold up. On that point, if you’ve got both arms fully extended and the cups are folded flat, there’s a point at the bottom-inner corner of each aluminum cup where they collide against each other. So if you wear them around your neck like that, it’s possible you’ll see scratches forming at that spot.

Build quality: Many reviewers have praised the APMs for their solid build quality, but to my touch, the metal earcups on mine have not been brushed/polished properly; I can feel the transition between smooth and rough patches when I run my fingers over them. It drives me kinda crazy that this is happening on a S$900 pair of headphones, even though I already know from first-hand experience over the past 16 years that first batches of Apple products out of the factory are likely to have some defects. Insert big sigh here.

Now, the competition. There really isn’t much to speak of if you want comparable sound quality in a wireless ANC headphone. I’d previously glanced at B&O’s new Beoplay H95 but their price tag was too high for what I thought was yet another mediocre product. My first pair of Beoplays was the first-generation wired H6, which was super comfortable but neutral and not much fun for some kinds of music, and everything since has not really been great. They made the headband smaller from the H7 onwards, so those don’t fit my head as well either.

In the wake of the AirPods Max launching, the H95 is now looking like the only real competitor. The online consensus is that Bang & Olufsen have finally nailed the sound quality and industrial design issues of their past, at greater cost to the consumer than before. They cost S$1300 compared to the $700 of the previous flagship H9 (third-generation).

Compared to the APMs, the H95s look better to some, are lighter, are more comfortable and sound even better (according to the forum folks on Head-Fi), have longer battery life, and fold up inside their included non-shitty metal carrying case. Arguments against them include less effective noise-cancellation, smaller earcups that may not fit everyone, no transparency mode, and none of that simplified wireless connectivity. Oh, and the fact that the brand is kind of struggling and so finding local repair options may not be possible in the long-term. It’s hard to fight formidable Apple’s retail and support network.

If I can’t justify keeping them around for short listening sessions only, then I’ll be returning the APMs for a refund and making do with what I already have. While they really sound terrific and have ruined a bunch of other headphones for me, solid audio engineering isn’t the whole package. An overemphasis on that is what people say* held the original HomePod back, but improving Siri to compete with Alexa and Google Assistant was arguably a much bigger hurdle than giving these a more comfortable fit and designing a better case.

Edit: I wore them the whole time while writing this week’s update, and on reflection, they sound so good that I’m hoping the band loosens up a bit or something so I can keep them.

* Who am I to say, when we can’t even buy HomePods in this neglected backwater that inexplicably has a spherical glass Apple Store?

General Reviews Videos

Backbone One unboxing

As mentioned yesterday, I’ve been waiting for the arrival of my Backbone One controller. It was dispatched at the end of October but took ages to leave the USPS, probably because they had some important envelopes to deliver at the same time. It arrived last night after about 10 days, and I’ve gotta say, first impressions are good.

It’s a good size and feels very nice in the hands, with my only concern being that the er… spine of it cuts directly across the lowest of the camera lenses on my iPhone 12 Pro, and it looks like the lens rests against that bit of plastic. I doubt it’ll cause any damage; those lens covers are sapphire crystal, but it looks a little odd. I’m not sure that it will fit an iPhone 12 Pro Max, but their site claims that it will.

It beggars belief that I could kill 16 people in CoD Mobile without dying once, but that’s just what happened the first time I snapped this thing on. It’s also transformed GRID Autosport from a game that I bought once and regretted immediately into something that feels truly console-like, and I don’t mean a Nintendo Switch. The graphics and haptics on this thing are way ahead of any racing game I’ve seen on that system.

General Reviews

Hold up, HEY

The debut of HEY email has been an interesting case study in launching a new service, in part because it took place on social media — a two-way street that led to them getting public feedback that’s already led to significant changes. As others have done in recent years, the launch was a staggered rollout with invite codes and a waitlist, and the resulting members-only feel and scarcity drove tens of thousands more to join the waitlist. Some say this is intentional marketing, but it’s also legitimately done to manage the experience when someone isn’t sure how much interest there will be.

I took notes on my hands-on experience in a previous post, and have spent a week now getting to grips with it, trying to picture it as my primary email service for the foreseeable future. The commitment isn’t just a new email address to inform people about; it’s also paying a perpetual premium service fee. After 16 years of “free” Gmail, that’s a big decision. Yes, you’re free to leave any time and they’ll forward all emails sent to you anywhere else you’d like, but I wouldn’t use a address if I wasn’t actually using HEY.

Everybody’s got opinions

But before the details of my decision (like, who cares, right?), I wanted to comment on the fascinating public launch of HEY that we’ve been spectators to, and how its creators have had to walk back some of their design decisions after product met reality.

As my friend YJ says above, Basecamp and HEY are heavily opinionated products by opinionated people; it’s what allows them to take a well-established thing like email, with its standard organizing paradigms of Inbox, Outbox, Sent, Spam, and Trash folders, and try something new. It’s only meant to satisfy a certain type of user with certain needs and preferences.

It’s not easy building something out of new ideas, at huge scale, and making sure it’s robust enough to carry the personal and business correspondence of paying customers who’ll depend on it for time-sensitive messages. By Basecamp’s account, they’ve been working quietly on HEY for two years before this month’s semi-public launch. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit both for attempting it and for how stable it has been.

When we design services, we know we won’t catch everything or get it right the first time. It’s about having priorities and principles, and optimizing against them every step of the way. If you’ve defined and studied your target audience, and care about pleasing them to the exception of everyone else, then you can make decisions based on their needs. If you put in the work to develop a core experience that will set your business apart, then that becomes the thing you protect even if Apple or anyone else tries to make you change it. Some companies famously put speed over certainty, and while it dazzled a lot of CIOs and inspired them to try and do the same, its pitfalls are now well known.

We don’t know what HEY’s development process looked like, or what they prioritized, and so we can only guess from what they actually shipped and what they’ve done since. Upon contact with the wider marketplace, some of those opinionated ideas are now being challenged as problematic or discriminatory. Could more user research and testing have caught them before launch? Probably. Was catching them before launch a priority for the team, or did they intend to test them in public and fix unintended consequences as they were discovered? To their credit again, they’ve fixed a lot of things very fast in the past week. From adding disposable functionality suggested by Apple to dumping fully built, non-trivial features… their responsiveness has been impressive.

Things that came broken

Let’s look at a couple of Twitter exchanges and changes I’ve spotted. On my first day with HEY, I noticed an unusual option in the “More” menu on every email thread. It was a button labeled something like “Generate Public Link”. This actually published the entire email conversation thread to a public webpage, allowing any third party to read and follow the exchange. I used it to help share a problem I was seeing with their support team, which is a nice way of enabling them to help customers without giving full access to all mail. And while you could always share private emails to a third party with copy/paste, screenshots, PDFs, etc. there was something unsettling about this. None of the other people would receive any notification that they were being “listened in on”, and anyone with the link would be able to see not just all previous emails, but any new ones added to the thread for as long as it was publicly shared.

You could be in a conversation with 20 people and not know if any one of them had generated a link and leaked it. When I explained this in a group chat, there was some disbelief. One person called it a “built-in whistleblower feature”. After others complained on Twitter about the potential for abuse, this feature was completely removed.


An early look at HEY email

(For Part 2 of this review, check out: Hold up, HEY)

I’ve been pretty keen to see HEY’s rethinking of email, and just got my early access invitation this week (I joined the queue back in February, perhaps on Day 2 of their recruitment drive). I was also an early adopter of Gmail back in 2004, and as they say on the manifesto page, there’s not been much innovation in the world of personal email since. If anything, email has been in decline and most of its use cases now belong to chat platforms (keeping up with friends), workplace project management/collaboration suites (enterprise communications), and services’ own portals (seeing account and order histories). The resurgence of newsletters is one bright spot, and displaying them is one of the main jobs of my email account.

Anyway, I get excited about new things quite easily. When the invitations started rolling out, I was obsessively checking my inbox, and I kid you not, literally dreaming about getting mine to the point where I was waking up in the middle of the night with the urge to check my mail! Part of the anxiety probably came from wanting needing to secure my address of choice, like I was lucky enough to do back in 2004 with Gmail. Just try getting your name now without adding random numbers; I don’t know how the poor kids today deal with the scarcity. My wife also wants any readers to know that she’s heard enough about my two username options, the pros and cons of both, and never wants to discuss email addresses again.

So now that I’ve used it for a little bit, I’m undecided if I should make this my primary email service. On one hand, everything they promise is true. The workflows are elegant, the way it puts you at the center of the experience is refreshing (no stranger can disturb your peace, OCD freaks can bundle threads together, etc.), and the emphasis on privacy and business model transparency is way better than any free alternative. On the other hand, it’s not entirely how I’d like to use email, and some edges are rough to the touch.

General Photos Reviews

Leica D-Lux 7 “Review”

Where does this fit for a compact buyer in 2019?

On paper, the camera I wanted was the Leica CL. For maximum versatility on the go, I imagined the first lens I would get would be the Vario-Elmar-TL 18–56mm (equivalent to 28–85mm in 35mm terms). There are several omissions on that camera, stabilization being a big one, but it was an intriguing and attractive product.

I’d always been curious about Leica cameras from afar, but never really considered buying one. Functionally speaking, I know that Fujifilm and Sony and the rest all make cameras so good that I could never use them to their fullest potential. And then here’s a company that makes idiosyncratic, deliberately limited gear easily costing three, four, five times as much. I suppose they are like Apple, but even more removed from the mainstream.

But the Leica curiosity is one that grows with age and disposable income. Every time it crossed my mind, I would wonder if it was time yet. Still, buying a fully manual chrome M felt like a 40th or 50th birthday move. The idea was to dip a toe into Leica’s shimmering pool, but not to fully jump in on the first try.

So, most irrationally, and that is the keyword I see in many sentences written by many people on the subject of Leica cameras, I decided I wanted to get one before I even knew if they made a model that I needed.

I looked into my compact camera drawer, pared down in recent years, and started describing what I needed. Essentially I wanted a good Swiss Army knife travel camera, a position filled by the LX10 I bought on sale early last year. It was good but lacking in a few areas. What I really wanted to get back then was the LX100, which I passed on because it was four years old by that point (I should have known an update would be out by the end of the year).

My wishlist:

  • Small and reasonably light. One-handable if necessary.
  • Physical, dedicated control dials for aperture, shutter speed, ISO, whatever possible.
  • The ability to zoom or change primes, if/when needed.
  • Physically attractive design. The LX10 performed well, but boy, it inspires no feelings at all.
  • An optical or electronic viewfinder.
  • Large enough sensor, probably APS-C or 35mm FF.

I think these are very sensible things to want in a travel camera, but it’s extremely hard to find them all in a fixed compact body. The recommended solution seems to be a small interchangeable lens mirrorless camera, like Fujifilm’s X-E3 or X-Pro 2, or Panasonic’s GX9. As far as compacts go, I could only think of the new Panasonic LX100 II. I knew that Leica had a rebranded version of it in their D-Lux 7, but somehow it didn’t even enter my mind for this particular shopping mission. If I was going to dip a toe in, it was going to in be the real pool and not the kiddy pool!

Walking into the Leica store, I made a beeline for the CL display, believing it to be the best fit for the above. It was sleek, well-built, and less than half the price of an M10, with access to a wide selection of M and L-mount lenses. The sound and feel of its shutter release was very satisfying, but after using it for a few minutes, I didn’t love the way it controlled. You don’t dial in the aperture on a lens ring, but on an unmarked soft dial on the top plate that displays your settings on a tiny LCD. Also, with that Vario lens, it’s kinda heavy, with a bulkiness that approaches the Leica Q. I considered the Q, but didn’t want a fixed 28mm.

I did the math on owning a CL and an eventual three-lens setup. It came up to like half a year’s rent. On the other hand, buying an M10 and a couple of Summilux and Noctilux lenses will bring you into territory normally reserved for car purchases (and mind you that’s in Singapore where we have some of the most expensive car ownership taxes in the world).

If you do a little internet research, you’ll find a lot of reasons why the first-generation isn’t close to being a finished or fully evolved product. The soft controls aren’t as traditional as they seem in practice, switching up functions between modes; the touchscreen UI and gestures drive some photographers crazy; and it doesn’t have any in-body stabilization. On those same sites, you’ll find people talking about what the Q’s successor might bring: a new 40+ megapixel sensor (like the one in Sony’s RX1Rmk2) which would allow the same 28mm lens to do in-camera crops equivalent to 70mm. Hmm, that would be something.*

My conclusion was this: Putting aside craftsmanship and engineering, and focusing purely on photographic needs, Leica’s non-M lineup today simply doesn’t have the right product to push me into the pool. Others with more money to spend or greater passion for the brand might have little problem doing it, but not me, not now. If I was going to enter an ecosystem on a journey that would end with me spending the price of a car on a fistful of glass and magnesium alloy, I would have to be sure.

Now, Fujifilm does a great job with their ergonomics. Aperture rings on the lens, shutter speed and ISO on top, with “A” automatic notches on each one. You just dial in the combination of those that suits your needs, and it’s so much more natural than a PASM mode dial. They just don’t make a fixed compact with a zoom lens anymore. Panasonic is the only other company I know that values the same control scheme, so I looked all the way back to the beginning… to that LX100 II, a thoroughly modern Japanese (okay, supposedly with a little help from Wetzlar) camera with stabilization and super-quick autofocus.

Panasonic LX-100 II

Yes, its menus are overcomplicated, and it tries to do too many things that no one will ever ask for, like multi-exposure photos and horrendous tilt-shift filters and that effect where one color is isolated and the rest of the photo is in black & white. Seriously. But as a camera, it ticks all the boxes in my original wishlist above. All but one. It’s kinda ugly. Where its cousin the LX10 was plain and kinda like a white label design, the LX100 has the same leather-like texture and unsightly handgrip bumps of a retro-leaning Olympus or Fujifilm product. After looking at nothing but Leica bodies for a couple of weeks, it was hurting my eyes.

Which is how I ended up with the D-Lux 7. It’s the less ugly, Leica-blessed version of the Panasonic Lumix LX100 II. I wish Leica had the time to write real custom firmware for it, instead of just reskinning Panasonic’s menus to be in white and red instead of white and yellow. I’d love to see them simplify it down to be just a simple stills camera, taking away the multiple color modes and filters, leaving just two options: color and B&W. In other words, more like other Leicas.

*Addendum: I wrote the above a few months ago and never hit Publish. Since then, two things have happened: Leica released the rumored Q2 months earlier than I would have expected. I pity everyone who bought their then-new Q-P over Christmas 2018; this Q2 is a ruthlessly quick follow-up that is refined in every way, except perhaps the files are a little too big.

Secondly, I came into ownership of a Leica CL after all, completely out of the blue. I’ll write a follow-up at some point, but my first impressions above still hold. It’s expensive, it’s not light, and the soft wheels take some getting used to. But I got used to dialing in the aperture on them after all, and the photos are exquisite. The D-Lux 7 actually complements it quite well, for when you need something a little more compact but don’t want to give up too much quality.