Hands on with the Knomo London Avignon laptop case

We take a hands on look at the stylish and sophisticated Knomo London quilted laptop bag.

Here in the lifestyle section, we get bombarded with accessories left and right made especially for the iPhone and the iPad. We love these accessories as much as anyone else, but what happened to cases and bags for those of us who still have to carry around actual laptops on a daily basis? Well, lucky for us, there are still plenty of good laptop-bag-makers out there, including the stylish and sophisticated brand Knomo London. The brand makes luxe bags and cases focused on laptops for both men and women, and we got a chance to get our hands on one of the designs for the ladies.

The Knomo Avignon Slim Brief ($100) is a sleek and sophisticated quilted laptop case that will carry your 13 or 15-inch laptop in style. It has both top handles and a detachable shoulder strap, faux-leather accents, a zip top, and two large side pockets to carry laptop accessories or other daily essentials that might otherwise go in your purse.

The bag looks fairly simple, but the devil is always in the details. Knomo bags all feature 15mm-thick high density shock-resistant foam to keep your laptop safe and protected from any bumps or falls. The inside is lined with soft fabric and has a unique Knomo tracker ID tag that will help the company get your bag back to you should you lose it. If found, someone can call the number listed on the ID tag and Knomo will trace the bag back to you. The company also offers a 2-year guarantee on each bag for possible defects in materials or craftsmanship, so you can be sure that your bag will last you until you trade in for a newer computer.

For the style of bag, we were very impressed with the construction of the Avignon Slim Brief and the overall high-quality feel. The outside nylon, faux-leather trimming, and the inside fabric all feel like high-end materials, and we like the cranberry-colored contrast lining in the purple version we tested out. The bag fit our 15″ laptop perfectly and the front and back outside pockets were definitely big enough to hold a charger, notebook, smartphone, wallet, and a few other essentials. We like this detail because often bags that look like laptop sleeves, as this design does, don’t allow any room for any extras.

Our only complaints about the bag are that the shoulder strap isn’t as nice-looking as the rest of the bag and attaches to the bag in strange spots, and that the black trim isn’t real leather. The faux-leather that is used seems to be good quality, but for the price tag real leather would be nice. Other than those small details, this is a bag that we would definitely recommend for women who need to carry a laptop on a daily basis but still want something that’s stylish and doesn’t scream “laptop bag.” It wouldn’t be a great choice for someone who has a ton of other stuff to keep in the bag, as it is a ‘slim’ design, but it’s perfect for a simple laptop carrier with room for just a few extras.

The bag comes in several different colors and is also offered in a quilted wool felt version.

Google Updates TV, Signs Celebs, Invades Living Room

Google made its intentions to invade the living room clear this week with a fresh update to its Google TV platform and a plan to create 100 online video “channels” on its YouTube website that will feature original programming from the likes of Madonna, Jay-Z, Ashton Kutcher and former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal.

The company said it simplified the Google TV software, which allows users to access the internet and search for web-video content through their TV screens. Google also said it improved the way people can simultaneously search for content on their live TV listings as well as Google's YouTube video site, on-demand shows available on Amazon.com and Netflix.com, among others.

Google hopes the new update can reinvigorate a product that has so far met a lukewarm reception since its initial release last year as it seamlessly integrates its family of services.

"We’re launching a new YouTube experience specifically built for Google TV," the company said in a blog post. "It is now fast and easy to get to your favorite HD-quality YouTube entertainment. And we’ve integrated YouTube more closely with Google TV search, so that you can turn virtually any topic – mountain biking, cooking, etc. – into a channel."

Despite advances in technology, many customers have been resistant to “cutting the cord.” This time, the company promises to entice new users with exclusive content.

The new venture, in partnership with dozens of media companies, Hollywood production companies, and online-video creators, will generate about 25 hours of new, original programming per day on YouTube. The majority of the roughly 100 channels will launch next year, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

Also involved in the venture are wellness guru Deepak Chopra, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, Rainn Wilson of "The Office" (who will be featured in a comedy channel), and a Hispanic channel featuring Sofia Vergara of "Modern Family." The celebrities will partner with various production companies to produce the content.

Madonna is expected to be involved in a dance-related channel, and Jay-Z is expected to produce content related to his Life + Times website, said people familiar with the matter.

Google is hoping to turn YouTube into a next-generation video provider that oversees free online channels with professional-grade shows. YouTube is expected to give some content creators 55 percent of the resulting ad revenue after YouTube recoups the cash advances it paid them, some of the people said. In Hollywood, such a split is considered to be generous.

Expert at London Internet Security Conference Warns of Cyber War

A leading internet security expert warned Tuesday that a cyber terrorist attack with "catastrophic consequences" looked increasingly likely in a world already in a state of near cyber war.

Speaking outside a global conference on internet security in London, Eugene Kaspersky, a Russian maths genius, told Sky News the threat was a real and present danger.

"I don't want to speak about it. I don't even want to think about it," he said. "But we are close, very close, to cyber terrorism. Perhaps already the criminals have sold their skills to the terrorists -- and then ... oh, God."

Kaspersky, who founded an internet security empire with a global reach, said he believed that cyber terrorism was the biggest immediate threat confronting nations as diverse as China and the US.

"There is already cyber espionage, cyber crime and hacktivisim [when activists attack networks for political ends] -- soon we will be facing cyber terrorism," he said.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron, talking at the London Cyber Conference, added to the growing chorus of world leaders sounding the cyber alarm.

"We are here because international cyber security is a real and pressing concern," he said. "Let us be frank. Every day we see attempts on an industrial scale to steal government secrets -- information of interest to nation states, not just commercial organizations.

"Highly sophisticated techniques are being employed ... These are attacks on our national interest. They are unacceptable."

He warned that "we will respond to them as robustly as we do any other national security threat."

Both the US and UK used the conference to set out principles they hope will form the basis of international cooperation in web governance, in which states would work together on issues such as security and copyright protection without imposing new restrictions on users, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The conference, which was attended by business and government leaders from around the world, demonstrates how cyber security has vaulted on the foreign policy agenda. But it is as likely to highlight disagreements as much as consensus, with China and others as interested in clamping down on internet users than shutting the door on criminals and spies.

"How do we achieve security for nations, people and business online without compromising the openness that is one of the internet's greatest attributes?" US Vice President Joe Biden said to the conference via video link.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had canceled her attendance due to the death of her mother.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said whatever disagreements emerge, the speedy development of the internet means discussions of its future and governance need to move on to an international stage.

"The truth is that in cyber space, no one country can go it alone," he told the conference in his opening address Tuesday. "In the place of today's cyber free-for-all, we need rules of the road."

Hague announced seven principles as the basis for more effective cooperation, including "the need for governments to act proportionately" in cyberspace and in accordance with international law; protection of freedom of expression; respect for privacy and copyright; and proposed joint action against criminals acting online.

A US official said the principles were largely in line with US cyber strategy and the conference was significant because it helped move the internet from just a technical discussion to one of international diplomacy.

Officials from around 60 nations are attending the two-day conference. Among those is China, which some officials in the UK and US have accused of orchestrating a campaign of cyber espionage aimed at stealing the intellectual property of their largest companies.

Adidas reveals new miCoach Speed Cell sports tracking system

Adidas is getting into the technology game with the miCoach Speed_Cell tracking system for more sports than just running.

Serious athletes in sports like basketball, football, soccer and tennis will no longer have to feel out of the loop when it comes to smart fitness trackers like the Nike+, which is specifically designed for runners only. Adidas Is getting into the technology game with the miCoach Speed_Cell tracking system ($70) that records more than just how far you might run.

 The system includes a special sensor (seen above in the Adizero f50 soccer cleat) that will fit into the outsole of compatible Adidas shoes and will be able to track up to seven hours of athletic stats. Instead of just recording distance traveled like a GPS or pedometer system would, the Adidas miCoach Speed_Cell will be able to record everything from average speed, maximum speed, number of sprints, distance at high intensity levels, to steps and stride during play. This valuable information will be wirelessly transmitted to each player’s smartphone, tablet, Mac, or PC. By consistently monitoring specifics stats like this, Adidas hopes they can help athletes recognize problems and strengths in order to improve.
The device itself will be available starting December 1, and the company plans to release a full range of compatible shoes for the aforementioned sports in the coming year. Adidas also plans to release a series of sport-specific apps (starting with miCoach Soccer and miCoach Running on December 1) to give users even more specific ways to track progress.
Look for the device and the first two sport-specific apps on December 1 and more compatible shoes and apps to come in the near future.

HP TouchSmart 610 Review

For all the hype that’s been made of touchscreen technology, it has done a rather poor job migrating into our most traditional — and common — computing spaces. Tablets are great, but they’re a niche market for now. Most of us do our computing on traditional desktop computers and notebooks, and you won’t find many touchscreens on either.

Part of the reason for is that integrating touchscreens in such devices is, well, hard. That’s particularly true of desktop computers. Although those with touchscreen are typically all-in-ones, it’s still not as if you can just pick up the computer and bring it closer when you feel the need. The display is a static entity, resistant to being pushed, pulled or tugged. And that’s a challenge.

The HP TouchSmart 610 tackles the issue with a unique hinge that allows it to drop down closer to horizontal on the desktop, easing arm strain as you tap, swipe and even type on the screen. Throw in a Core i7-2600 processor, 8GB of RAM and a Radeon HD 5570 video card, and the TouchSmart 610 represents one of the most powerful and practical touchscreen PCs we’ve seen so far.
Oddly hinged

Casual observers of the HP TouchSmart 610 will see a standard all-in-one computer. In fact, they may see one that’s starting to look a bit dated, as this computer’s four-inch thick frame is a bit large by the standards of some competitors, such as Sony’s L Series. The visual perception of size seems to be increased somewhat by the design, as well. Clad in black, but sculpted with a curved back, this HP ends up looking a bit thicker to our eyes than it is to our tape measure.

It’d be wrong to say this is an unattractive product, however. It’s passably handsome and entirely inoffensive. That’s important, because like most all-in-ones, the HP is designed to be part of a living room or entertainment room experience. As such, it shouldn’t take attention from the actual entertainment.

hp-touchsmart-610-tilt-right-sideAnd it never will, unless company comes by and sees the 610 all laid-back. One of this product’s defining features is the unique stand, which is designed to allow users to not only move the display up and down, but also tilt it back as far as sixty degrees. This makes it possible to use the all-in-one comfortably in a greater variety of positions, such as standing up.

This may seem a little silly, but that’s only when thinking about this computer conventionally. Although its design does nothing to preclude it from use as typical, day-to-day PC, it can be used in some unique areas of a home. For instance, the kitchen. A computer like this can be used to store digital recipes for easy access, and once everything is order, you can throw up Netflix for some entertainment, all with just a few taps of a finger.
Tossing out the keyboard

As you might expect, Windows 7 comes installed as standard, and it’s fully functional. The stock interface isn’t really designed for touch input, however, so HP provides its own custom solution. When opened, it completely dominates the traditional Windows interface, providing instead an overlay that is easier to navigate with fingers.

Easier how? Part of it is a size thing. Buttons, thumbnails, scroll bars, and just about everything else is larger to accommodate a meaty finger’s lack of precision compared to a laser mouse. Yet it’s also in how things are laid out. Information – photos, sticky notes, or even websites – can be placed as magnets on the custom desktop, then accessed by touch. You can even write directly on the desktop with the graffiti feature, which feels a bit hokey, but kept us amused for a minute or two.

hp-touchsmart-610-keyboard-mouseWhen you aren’t dawdling around the screen with your fingers, there’s a perfectly serviceable keyboard and mouse available. Neither is fancy, particularly the keyboard, which lacks special function keys with the exception of a sleep button that hangs out in the upper left hand corner. Yet we found both functional. The keyboard is pleasing to use, and the mouse is both comfortable and accurate. Those who might want to buy this computer as much for its all-in-one-ness as for its touchscreen won’t need to buy new input devices.
Big and bright

Since the display is an important part of this computer’s interface, HP didn’t settle for a cheap panel. Instead, the only display made available is a brilliant, glossy IPS monitor with 1080p resolution. It performed beautifully in our tests, displaying all the black level test images and rendering the gradient test image with nary a break or ripple.

These excellent results carried over to video content, where this computer performs like a small HDTV. Images are crisp, colors are vivid, and dark scenes remain detailed rather than washing out or bleeding into a muddy gray mess.

hp-touchsmart-610-displaySound quality is less impressive. This is a Beats Audio branded device, and the attention to audio is noticeable, thanks to a surprising amount of bass and a clear mid-range. With that said, however, we’re not convinced that users will be satisfied with the base audio as their only source of sound. Despite HP’s best efforts, the fact remains that the sound staging is limited, which takes away from both music and movies.
Connection station

The ports and plugs available for use with devices are always important, but they’re particularly crucial in an all-in-one computer. That’s because these computers are more likely to be used as media centers or family computers, and also because there’s not much room for upgrades once you get them home.

hp-touchsmart-610-side-portsUsers looking for a quick connection will mostly use the bank of ports on the left side of this PC. It includes a card reader as well as two USB 2.0 ports and individual headphone and microphone jacks. This is an OK array of connectivity, but no better than average.

hp-touchsmart-610-back-inputsAround back, you’ll find more connections awkwardly crammed together under a drop-down panel on the back. There are four more USB ports and additional A/V inputs, including D-sub and most notably, coax. That jack exists because this computer comes with a standard TV tuner (and remote!) So yes, this computer is in effect a touchscreen TV as well as a computer, a fact that will mean little to some readers and absolutely everything to others.

hp-touchsmart-610-inputs

One major oversight is HDMI out. It’s nowhere to be found on the sides or on the back. This computer certainly has the chops to serve as a wonder-boy home theater and family computer, but without HDMI out, a lot of connectivity options are eliminated.
Software extras

HP’s Touchsmart interface, which is one of the most important software enhancements, was already touched on above. There are a few other bits of software installed, however.

Most of it is obvious marketing material. Opening “HP Music” in the touchscreen interface brings up a Rhapsody-powered user interface, which can be used to sign up for the service and listen to music as well as catalog local tracks. Other preinstalled brands include Ebay, Hulu, and Weatherbug, along with the typical Norton anti-virus.

All of these services can be potentially uninstalled, even from the TouchSmart interface, so there’s no huge issue here. It’s just a minor annoyance that may make a few geeks feel a bit hot under the collar.
Full desktop performance

Though an all-in-one designed for entertainment use by the whole family, the HP TouchSmart 610 is no slouch when it comes to hardware. It is, in fact, the company’s flagship touch all-in-one computer.

As a result, all variants come nicely equipped. Intel’s Core-i7 2600 is the only choice, and while the 1.5TB hard drive and eight gigabytes of RAM in our review unit are technically upgrades, they’re the “free” type (basically standard, but listed as an upgrade for marketing purposes). Our review unit also came with Radeon HD 5570 graphics, a no-cost option.

hp-touchsmart-610-tilt-right-side-screenWith all of this hardware available, it’s no surprise that the performance results were excellent. SiSoft Sandra reported a combined score of 93 GOPS, while 7-Zip reported a combined score of 16,142. Both of these relay the fundamental strength of the quad-core Intel processor. In combined testing with PCMark 7, the TouchSmart reported a score of 2,781, while 3DMark 11 returned a surprisingly respectable score of 1,405.

These scores are all solid, and represent a computer with a broad range of powerful hardware that can handle most tasks thrown at it. However, these scores could also easily be beaten by a less expensive computer, such as HP’s own Pavilion desktops. Obviously, you’re paying for the touchscreen and the all-in-one design, so most computers that don’t have those features will easily outrun this computer for hundreds less.
Conclusion

This computer is a tour-de-force for modern touchscreen desktops. It throws everything that one could imagine at the task at hand. It has fast hardware, a brilliant display, a custom touch interface, and a unique hinge that makes it possible to angle the entire touchscreen in numerous ways for easy use.

Even so, there are flaws in this design. The fact remains that, while the touchscreen is cool, it is easily abandoned in favor of the keyboard and mouse, which is simply better to use in many situations. The touch input, for all HP’s effort, still feels like a bit of a gimmick.

The lack of HDMI out is also a big issue. A computer like this would be perfect for an entertainment center, as its touch screen would allow quick navigation of video, and it already comes with a remote. But without HDMI out, the usefulness of this computer for entertainment in some situations is reduced. On the other hand, the built-in TV tuner is nice to have, and will allow this computer to double as a television.

Consumers who are in the market for an all-in-one should check this model out. Despite the issues above, it remains among the best entries in the field. It’s both quick and easy to use, with touch or without, which means it’s a nice choice for a family PC — if you can justify spending the dough.
Highs:

    Beautiful 1080p display
    Touch input is responsive
    Fast hardware
    Unique hinge works well

Lows:

    Expensive
    No HDMI out
    Touch input is of questionable use

Gigabyte G1 Sniper 2 Motherboard: Live Ammo!

We almost forgot this cool motherboard sent to us by PC Trends the other month but when I finally unboxed it last week, I regret I didn’t do it earlier. Forget the specs, this one just looks pretty awesome.

The motherboard was designed to look like a rifle — just look at that magazine below that serves as some sort of a heat sink .

The G1 Sniper2 is for Intel processors and supports Socket 1155 with Intel Z68 Express Chipset.

It supports up to 4DDR3 DIMM slots with capacities of up to 32GB of memory as well as Support for Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) memory modules.

At the back, you got 1 HDMI port for 1080p video output, Gigabit LAN (Bigfoot Killer E2100 chip), eSATA, and support for AMD CrossFireX/NVIDIA SLI technology.

It’s got 14 USB 2.0/1.1 ports with up to 4 USB 3.0 ports. Just check out all those ports at the back panel of the board. Coolness, huh?

Acer Aspire S3 Review

 Acer’s very own version of the ultrabook was revealed in the form of the Aspire S3 a couple of weeks ago. This review unit I have was actually won during their raffle at the event and I’ve been using it for over a week now. Check out our full review of the Acer Aspire S3 ultrabook after the jump.

Acer is said to be the first one to release an ultrabook in the Philippines, a category of notebooks that combines great processing power, long battery life and a very thin form factor that’s under half an inch thick.

However, Samsung already has something in that same specs with their Series 9 laptops for many months already so the title is debatable.

The Aspire S3 is definitely sexy with its very thin frame and brushed metal finish. The ultrabook is made of a combination of metallic (aluminum) lid and plastic bottom with a total net weight of only 3lbs. Not bad considering the equivalent 13″ Macbook Air is almost the same weight or just 0.02lbs lighter. The Aspire S3 is also very thin at about 17mm at its thickest point.

All the ports are situated at the back (the 2 USB ports and the HDMI port) which is a little bit hard to reach when you needed them. The SD card reader is placed on the right side and the 3.5mm audio port on the left for easy access.

The 13-inch screen has a resolution of 1366×768 pixels, typical of most other laptops in this size but we’re wishing it could have been a bit higher (like 1400×900).

The display is bright and crisp but I notice the contrast isn’t that high so you’d have the impression the screen is a little washed out when you set it at the highest brightness. This isn’t unusual though since I’ve had other laptops before (from other brands) that had these same characteristics. Movie playback is great though and the display produces clear and crisp images.

One design issue I noticed is that hinge of the lid sits on top of the base so it tends to wobble a lot because it does not have anything solid to rest on.

On the contrary, the MBA’s hinge design sits at the back end of the base so when you flip the lid open, the edge of the lid rests at the bottom end of the base. The problem with that design is that you can only flip open the MBA’s lid up to around 135-degrees while the Aspire S3 can open to as wide as 170-degrees.

The decision to use a hybrid storage is a tricky one – 320GB HDD for main storage and a tiny 20GB SSD for caching. The SSD works in the background and cannot be seen by the system. It’s used for storing data when the laptop goes on sleep or hibernate which allows it to boot and wake from sleep fairly fast. I’d say a typical 2 to 3 seconds from sleep and around 35 seconds to boot up Windows 7.

The hybrid solution is probably the biggest contributor to making this unit more affordable by at least Php10k-15k. The drawback is that it’s typically slower compared to an all-SSD storage.

On the contrary, you get much higher capacity for cheap. I reckon I can slap my 2.5” 1TB Western Digital HDD in here and go dual-boot. Coming from using a Macbook Air with only 64GB of SSD, 320GB of HDD on the Aspire S3 is much better. For one, I can now run iTunes and download podcasts and manage songs from the S3 when I could not do it on my MBA for fear of using up all the disk space.

The track pad is wide, smooth and easy to use. It supports some multi-touch gestures like pinch and zoom or two-finger scrolling. There’s no dedicated left and right buttons and, just like the Air, they’re built-into the trackpad itself.

However, the gestures doesn’t feel very fluid or responsive even after several adjustments in the settings. Sometimes it’s also jerky that you’d accidentally activate unwanted or extra commands.

The full-qwerty keyboard uses chiclet-type keys and is well-spaced. Some keys are smaller than usual, like the Enter key. The arrow keys on the lower right corner are so small they’re almost un-usable. Like the 13-inch MBA, there seems to be an awful waste of space where the keyboard space is not maximized. The biggest disappointment here is the absence of back-lit keyboard.

Performance of the Aspire S3 is actually really good. The Windows Experience Index scores show above average scores for the processor (6.3) and gaming graphics (6.1) while the sub-score for Windows Aero is the lowest at 4.6 (probably because Acer only allotted 128MB RAM on the graphics chip).

Applications don’t load as fast as it would on a Mac Air running an SSD but it does the job right (Adobe CS5 loads in 5 seconds on the MBA while it takes almost twice as long on the Aspire S3). Over-all, it’s still pretty good.

The combination of the Core i5 processor and the 4GB DDR3 RAM practically takes care of all the other computing needs. The Intel HD 3000 GPU offers entry-mid level graphics processing.

Acer Aspire S3 specs:
13.3″ LCD display @ 1366×768 pixels
Intel Core i5 2467M 1.6GHz dual-core
4GB DDR3 RAM
320GB SATA HDD + 20GB SSD
Intel HD Graphics 3000 w/ 128MB RAM
WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
1.3MP webcam
2-in-1 card reader
2 x USB 2.0 port
HDMI port
Windows 7 Home Premium

Note that this is just the mid-range configuration. Acer will also offer the Core i3 and Core i7 variants with options for a full SSD storage. The performance on those models will definitely be different than this one, obviously, as well as the retail price.

Acer also included a Dolby Home Theater and the sound is actually better than expected, especially during movie playback. You don’t get a whole lot of bass but the volume has a good range and the sound quality is pretty decent.

Battery life is something we’re eager to discover with the S3. Acer claims up to 6 hours on a single full charge but our experience in the more than one week of usage, it averages only around 4.5 hours. A little power-saving tweak might push it over 5 hours which isn’t that bad though I was hoping for a bit more.

With a suggested retail price of only Php44,900, the Acer Aspire S3 is actually the cheapest of all the ultrabooks currently in town, and that includes the Php66k Macbook Air 13 and the Php67k Samsung Series 9 notebooks. The more than Php20k price difference is mainly attributed to the use of a slower 320GB HDD instead of the 128GB SSD, a reasonable trade-off if you asked me. I reckon the upcoming Asus Zenbook would be in the Php60+k range as well.

What Acer is offering here is a balance between specs and pricing although the latter obviously has a little more weight in this case (read: price positioning). The Aspire S3 is the closest Windows-based machine we can actually compare to the MBA and there was obviously some design inspirations taken by the S3 from the Air which is the reason we can’t stop ourselves from comparing them. The choice between Windows 7 and OS X Lion is a matter of personal taste so we’ll not go there.

The S3 is by no means perfect, and it has its shortcomings, but it offers a great and much cheaper alternative in the ultrabook category. Too bad they don’t have an 11-inch variant — that would have been more portable and lighter.

Sennheiser HD 598 Review

Sennheiser added three new models to its HD lines late last year, with the HD 598 the most premium among them. Along with the cheaper HD 558 and HD 518, the HD 598 sported a newly touted technology which Sennheiser is calling E.A.R., short for Eargonomic (yes…we’re being serious) Acoustic Refinement. Though we won’t be dishing out any awards to Sennheiser for cleverly conceived marketing acronyms, we must acknowledge that whatever the company chooses to call it, it will probably end up sounding good. Sennheiser has a knack for making high-end headphones that make our ears elated and, as we quickly learned, the HD 598 are no exception. There’s just one problem: Their color.
Out of the box

It is often suggested that the U.S. trails Europe big time when it comes to matters of fashion and design. Whether you agree with that notion or not, you’ve got to admit Europe tends to be pretty adventurous and open minded when it comes to that sort of thing. With that acknowledgement out there… well, let’s just get this out of the way right now: Most of us here at DT headquarters didn’t care for the color scheme of the HD 598.

sennheiser-hd-598-headphones-sideSennheiser describes the design of the HD 598 as being “inspired by Euro sport sedan interiors.” We can see where they were going, but as much as we dig our luxury sports sedan interiors, we don’t necessarily want to wear it on our heads. It’s not the burl wood accents so much (we actually liked those), it’s the cream-colored leather with brown earpads that had us turning up our noses. We readily admit, however, that our opinion will not necessarily be shared by others, and suggest that those interested do check out the HD 598 in person because, as we’ll soon share, these headphones sound far better than they look.

Moving on, we noted that the HD 598 are natively terminated with a ¼-inch headphone plug, which is a sign to us that Sennheiser takes these cans seriously as a high-end headphone. A ¼-inch-to-⅛-inch adapter also comes in the box, but that’s it: no case, carrying pouch or airline adapters.
Features and design

The HD 598 are circumaural, so they are designed to encompass the entire ear. The headband is wrapped in a supple, leather-like material. The underside of the headband is more than amply padded, which gives the headphones a luxurious feel.

A pliable plastic band attached to the ear-cup suspension slips inside the headband, with a wide range of adjustment available to accommodate various head sizes. Both the suspension and outer ear-cups are made of a tough resin not likely to crack or break.

sennheiser-hd-598-headphones-band

The inner portion of the ear-cups are well padded and lined with brown velour. Deeper into the ear-cup, we can make out Sennheiser’s “open-aire” transducer, the size of which is not disclosed, but we’re guessing it is somewhere in the 40mm neighborhood. The driver is angled from front to back, so as to direct sound toward the forward portion of the ear, an approach Sennheiser claims mimics the way we hear stereo loudspeakers. There’s also an interesting 1-inch notch of raised plastic toward the back of the ear-cup. We can’t find any information on what this is, but imagine it may have something to do with reflecting sound to enhance imaging properties.

sennheiser-hd-598-headphones-earcup

The HD 598’s cable is 10 feet long and, as previously mentioned, terminated with a ¼-inch plug. The cable plugs into the left headphone and uses a twist-and-lock mechanism to help keep the cable secure should it be inadvertently stepped on or otherwise unexpectedly yanked.
Performance

We tested the HD 598 using an iPhone 3G, iPod Touch, Marantz SR6005 A/V receiver, Pioneer turntable with Ortofon OM5E cartridge, Bellari phono pre-amp, HeadRoom micro DAC and HeadRoom micro amp.

First, a few words on fit and comfort: The HD 598 are exceptionally comfortable. A few factors come together to make this happen. The padded headband all but eliminates pressure from the top of the head, the ear-cups exert very little pressure to the sides of the head, and the velour ear pads breathe well enough that we never felt any heat or humidity, even during long testing sessions. This extreme comfort did not come at the expense of a secure fit, though. The headphones managed to stay put through all sorts of ridiculous motion tests which included a lot of bouncing around and head nodding. The only time we managed to shake these cans loose was during an impromptu headbanging session which felt strangely out of character considering we were listening to Mozart at the time.

sennheiser-hd-598-headphones-front-angleWith our unorthodox motion tests out of the way, we grabbed an ice pack to quell the whiplash, took a seat and made with the listening tests. For grins, we simply plugged the HD 598 directly into our iPhone and hit “random”.

As fate would have it, the first track that came up was Michael Buble’s “Save the Last Dance for Me” from the It’s Time album. Now, before you start smirking at our taste in music, let us just disclose that we keep this track on our phone because it is ridiculously over-produced and, for that reason, makes for a particularly difficult test track. We’ve played this cut back through all sorts of expensive headphones in the past and, quite often, they fold under the pressure. There’s just so much to reproduce all at once. Deep bass, orchestral string instruments, bombastic drums, splashing cymbals and biting brass accompany Buble’s voice which is already sickeningly suave on its own, but tends to further turn to mush when reproduced by anything other than the very best headphones. Under the pressure of this track, the HD 598 didn’t so much as bat an eyelash.

Not only did Buble’s voice remain crystal clear, but each instrument came across with unique character and occupied its own space within the mix. While the wall of sound didn’t allow us to pick up on any inner details, the sheer power and finesse the HD 598 exhibited was enough to let us know that these headphones were going to earn themselves a spot on our list of top ten headphones for the year. If Buble always sounded this good, we could probably stand to listen to his recordings a lot more often.

We said bye-bye to Buble and moved on to something a little less busy. We pulled up Jamie Cullum’s “Back to the Ground” from his Catching Tales album. This track works for us because it opens with a very closely-mic’d vocal accompanied only by a Fender Rhodes. Here, we have the opportunity to hear the subtly coarse distortion of the Rhodes along with a some of the mouth-sounds that come as a result of a sensitive mic being placed right up in Cullum’s face. We’ve heard this cut hundreds of times, but there were some details that came through the HD 598 that we’ve never heard before. In some places, we could hear the compressor on the vocal microphone disengage, then re-engage as Cullum takes a breath and lets out a sigh. The compressor just cuts off the end of the sigh in a way that is unnatural enough to let you know it was a machine that did it. This little sound (or lack of it) is so far back in the mix, it’s a wonder that it’s even audible. Yet, the HD 598 are so incredibly revealing that even these sort of easily overlooked nuances came across as apparent.

Balanced, natural, open, revealing…these overused adjectives began to take on new meaning as we continued listening to the HD 598. High frequencies were well extended and had a good amount of ring to them, though we wouldn’t go so far as to say they were on par with Sennheiser’s flagship HD 800 (we’ve gotta draw the line somewhere).

Midrange response was probably the most impressive we’ve heard in years, particularly considering the HD 598’s price point. Vocals were reproduced as naturally as headphones that go for two or three times the HD 598’s asking price, and made re-listening to some tired out tracks a new and fun experience.

sennheiser-hd-598-headphones-frontBass response was smooth, deep and just gutteral enough when called to be. If you’re looking for eardrum-thumping bass, look elsewhere. The HD 598 seem to strive for accuracy above all else. If your music of choice is bass heavy, you’ll hear plenty of that low end, but the HD 598 don’t mercilessly pound your noggin.

Of course, no set of headphones come without at least a couple of drawbacks. In the case of the HD 598, we found that the open-backed design allows for a lot of sound to bleed out. If you enjoy keeping your music to yourself when amongst others, these aren’t the right headphones for you. Even at moderate listening volumes, music comes right through the back of the ear-cups for all to hear. They also don’t provide much in the way of noise isolation, which means hearing everything they can do in noisy environments is a tough proposition. It’s tough to call these drawbacks, really, considering that the open-backed design is a major part of what makes these headphones sound so great.

The only other issue worth mentioning is that the ⅛-inch adapter, when added to the already lengthy ¼-inch plug, makes for a 4-inch long (and fairly heavy) terminus. This arrangement puts unwanted stress on devices like the iPhone and our HeadRoom micro amp input jack. It’s not a deal-breaker, but you’ll want to be careful.
Conclusion

Based on the merits of sound quality alone, we would rate the HD 598 a 9.5. These cans sound remarkable, perhaps the best we’ve heard under $500. Unfortunately, their design and color palette are polarizing attributes which are sure to turn off some would-be listeners. Also, their tendency to bleed sound and lack of noise isolation, while a by-product of their terrific-sounding open-air design, are problems that keep them from being a suitable solution for listeners on the go. If you don’t mind the color and tend to do more private listening, we strongly recommend the HD 598.
Highs:

    Remarkable Sound
    Extremely Comfortable
    Lightweight

Lows:

    Unattractive Color
    No case/pouch
    Awkward with portable media devices (long adapter)

Diesel DZ1419 ‘Frankenwatch’ has split personality

This watch is two-thirds gunmetal stainless steel and one-third clear blue lucite, but all enviably cool.

Having more than one personality in your daily life is not generally considered a good thing. If you feel the need to express your true self and your alter-ego like Beyonce and Sasha Fierce, translate that into your timepiece instead of freaking out your friends. The Diesel DZ1419 ($250) is affectionately called the “Frankenwatch” for good reason. Two-thirds of the watch is gunmetal ion-plated stainless steel, while the righthand one-third is made from a bright blue, clear lucite. The split-personality dial features the two and four numerals on the blue side and white accents and stick indices on the gunmetal side. The watch has quartz movement and is water-resistant up to 50 meters. While a watch with two designs might normally make us cringe, we like the clean, heavy look of this timepiece – both sides included. Relatively classic styling combined with the interest and pop of color added by the blue one-third makes this piece just quirky enough to be worn on a daily basis as your favorite watch.

I’m Watch gives you Android on your wrist, connects to your smartphone

This high-tech watch runs on a customized Android OS and connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth, allowing you to see notifications right on your wrist.

Why own a watch that just tells you the time when you can own one that does almost everything your smartphone would do, but can be worn right on your wrist? That’s the idea behind I’m Watch ($400+), which takes the idea of the iPod Nano with the wristband a step further by incorporating an Android operating system and Bluetooth technology that can connect to your smartphone, either Apple, Android, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone 7.

For the hefty price tag (that starts at about $400 and goes up from there) you’ll be able to see previews of notifications like messages and emails from your smartphone that are sent to the watch via Bluetooth. The watch also runs apps so that you can play music, check the weather, and schedule appointments.

The I’m Watch will reportedly run on a customized version of Android 1.6, which is the oldest version of the Google mobile OS. It seems like a strange move, but it will probably suffice for everything this device needs to do. The watch features a microphone for making calls, which you can actually do directly from the device. Things like messages, email, Facebook, and Twitter will show up as notifications on your I’m Watch screen but you’ll have to actually dig your phone out of your pocket or purse to make any further actions.

The watch is aiming to appeal to a wide range of consumers, despite the high starting price tag. The watch comes in a playful color version (seen above), a titanium model, and several luxurious designs featuring diamonds and precious metals. You can pre-order the watch now, but the Italian Website says that it will be approximately 90 days before it gets to you.

We are used to digging around in our pockets or purses for our smartphone every time it makes a ‘ding’ notification, so we can definitely see the appeal of being able to see what that email is about on your wrist before reaching for your phone. Being able to do the basics of checking the weather, playing a few tunes, or making a quick call from the watch also seems useful. Would you ever use a smart-watch that connected to your phone?

How to buy a receiver: The ultimate buying guide

From understanding watt ratings to Wi-Fi, we explain how to buy a receiver that will last you years in our ultimate receiver buying guide.

There are a number of reasons it may be time to purchase a new audio receiver. Did you buy the receiver you currently own when Bill Clinton was still in the oval office? Did you recently pick up a Blu-ray disc player capable of supporting some cool sounding high-resolution audio formats? Did you just get the green light to build that man cave you’ve been dreaming about? If you answered yes to any of those questions, picking up a new receiver is probably an excellent idea.

Here’s the good news: Today’s receivers are packed with lots of advanced technology and just plain cool features, now offering better value than ever before. Here’s the bad news: Today’s receivers are packed with lots of advanced technology and just plain cool features, making the research and buying process potentially more confusing than ever before.

Worry not. This guide to picking a receiver will get you up to date on some of the newer terms, demystify some of the specifications and ratings numbers you’ll be looking at as you research, highlight some of the newest features and explain what to look and listen for when auditioning. When you’re done reading this guide, you’ll be armed with the information you need to make a solid buying decision on a receiver that will serve you well for years to come. Let’s get started.
Stereo or Surround?

Two basic categories of receivers exist: Stereo and A/V. A stereo receiver is designed to operate two speakers at a time, sometimes in multiple rooms. Today’s stereo receivers will often feature XM or Sirius satellite radio capability and HD radio tuners, in addition to traditional AM/FM tuners. They usually offer a phono input, and some sort of iPod integration available with the purchase of an optional iPod dock. Subwoofer outputs can occasionally be found on stereo receivers, but are not common. Stereo receivers rarely support video or digital audio inputs, favoring analog stereo instead.

A/V (audio/video) receivers are intended to function as the core of a home theater. They build on the stereo receiver concept by adding surround-sound capability, digital audio processing, digital video processing and switching, automatic speaker setup systems and, more commonly, network audio and video support.

We should note that stereo receivers are far less popular today than they used to be, but they can be a great fit for those whose primary use will be stereo music, or for use in smaller rooms like offices and bedrooms. They can be used to enhance the TV experience as well, but don’t expect a stereo receiver to make the task of coordinating several sources (cable or satellite box, DVD, Blu-Ray, DVR, game consoles, etc.) with your TV any easier.

For the most part, we will be focusing our discussion on how to choose an A/V receiver, but keep in mind that many of the characteristics that indicate product quality apply to both.
Getting good sound

Today’s A/V receivers — even the budget models — are packed to the brim with all kinds of bells and whistles. But what good are fancy features if the receiver doesn’t sound good, right? With so many makes and models on the market, you need to weed out the bad units right off the bat. Otherwise, you just might go crazy trying to keep them all straight. To sort out your short-list, you can start by looking at some product specifications (specs) to get an idea for what you do and don’t want to spend your time auditioning. Specs, though, can be highly suspect, as you’ll see.
Specs: Useful or misleading?

The sad truth is that manufacturer specifications are not as indicative of product quality as they once were. Many of the companies that make receivers have figured out how to “cook the books” to make their products look attractive, even if they sit at the bottom of the product line. While high-end brands don’t tend to dabble in this game, most big-name brands do to some degree. Have you noticed that almost everything pushes 100 watts per channel these days?

Still, it is possible to read between the lines and get a better idea of whether a given receiver is worth further investigation, or should be cut from the list of contenders right away. Here’s our explanation of some crucial specifications and clues on what to look for.
Power

This is where most of the deception takes place. Manufacturers know buyers are looking for big numbers, since it is commonly assumed that more watts means more power and, therefore, better sound. So, they’ve figured out ways to achieve the numbers that look good to buyers by making the tests less stressful. If the test is super easy, then everyone can get an “A,” right?

Fortunately, the FTC mandates that testing conditions be disclosed. So, with a little know-how, it is possible to differentiate a legit power rating from one that has been fudged. The key is to look at those testing condition disclosures.

RMS: Power should be expressed as RMS and not peak power. Peak power could mean the receiver puts out X watts for well under one second. RMS (root mean squared) refers to continuous power that can be sustained for long periods of time, and is a more revealing indication of power capabilities.

All channels driven: A lower quality receiver might claim to output 100 watts per channel (WPC) in stereo mode, yet the rating will fall considerably (80 WPC or less) in surround mode. This indicates that one amp’s power is being split up amongst several speakers, and that usually results in poor power availability when you need it most. Instead, look for the statement “all channels driven,” which indicates amplification is equal to all of the receivers channels.

Bandwidth: A high power rating might also have been attained by driving a single frequency for a short amount of time. If you see 100 x 5 ( @ 1kHz), this is a sign that the receiver’s power ratings were achieved under low stress conditions and the rating on paper is much higher than what the receiver can pull off in the real world. Look for (@ 20Hz-20kHz) as an indication that the receiver was rated while driving a full range audio signal to be sure the rating is accurate.

Impedance: Impedance is a measure of electrical resistance. Most (but definitely not all) home audio speakers have impedance around 6 to 8 ohms. Manufacturers know this is the case, so they should publish power ratings established while driving an 8-ohm load. However, since power ratings can as much as double when established by using a lower impedance load, some receiver makers will use this to make their power ratings look better. Ironically, these receivers are nowhere near capable of driving a 4-ohm speaker in the real world. In fact, trying to do so will probably result in speaker and receiver damage. Bottom line, if you do see a 4-ohm power rating, there should also be an 8-ohm rating right next to it.

If you see any of the warning signs of wattage rating fudgery, we recommend you just move on to other options, since it is likely that other disclosures are less than forthright as well.
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD)

While power ratings are a valuable indicator of a receiver’s capability, they don’t tell the whole story about its sound quality. The THD rating can help round out the picture as it describes how faithful the sound signal remains to the original as the receiver amplifies it. THD less than 0.1 percent is considered to be inaudible, and 0.08 percent or lower is certainly very good. On the other hand, if you see anything higher than 0.1 percent, you can bet that the wattage ratings are way overblown. In that case, steer clear.
Processing (Choosing a DAC)

So far, we’ve dealt with identifying quality amplification in a receiver. Now, we need to look at the signal the receiver will be amplifying. As you can imagine, if the signal the receiver gets is poor, the resulting sound will be poor too, no matter how good the amp in a receiver is.

DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter. As the name implies, it takes the digital signal from your Blu-ray, DVD, game console, DVR or what-have-you, and converts it to analog so that it can be amplified. The better the DAC, the better the sound. So how do you know if a receiver uses quality DACs?

Most receiver manufacturers won’t bother to disclose the type of DAC in their products unless it is pretty good to begin with. If they are calling attention to the DAC maker (be it Burr Brown, SHARC or otherwise) there’s a good chance it is a quality DAC.

The fact that the name of the DAC isn’t listed in the specs guide doesn’t mean that the piece is of poor quality, though. You can just use its inclusion an as indication that the receiver is a little ahead of its like-priced competition.
The Matching Game: Getting your receiver and speakers to play nice

Getting great sound from your system requires that you match up your speakers’ needs with your receiver’s capabilities. Now that you know how to identify what a receiver can do in terms of power and processing, consider what your speakers need to sound their best. To do this, we’ll need to look at some speaker specs.

Impedance: As we mentioned before, your speakers’ impedance is the level of resistance that that is given to your receiver’s signal. An 8-ohm impedance rating is pretty typical, and speakers with this impedance play nicely with a very broad range of receivers. Once that number starts to drop, though, you will need more and more stable power. For example, 4-ohm speakers are tough to drive and will require an amplifier with more oompf.

Sensitivity/SPL: Your speakers’ sensitivity refers to how loud they play per given watt of power. The resulting SPL (sound pressure level) is noted in terms of db (decibels). A speaker with low sensitivity will need more power to make it play as loudly as a speaker with high sensitivity. Generally, most speakers live between 85dB and 95dB per watt, with some exceptions on both ends of the spectrum. If your speakers live on the low end, plan on a higher-powered receiver to get them performing their best. Keep in mind that sensitivity is not an indication of sound quality. It just means it can play louder with less power.

Bandwidth: Generally speaking, the more bass you demand from your speakers, the more power you will need to feed them. The introduction of the self-powered subwoofer has lifted a lot of responsibility from the receiver. Systems that use smaller bookshelf or satellite speakers and leave the earth-shaking task to the subwoofer, require a little less power from the receiver. Those who employ full-range speakers that produce a lot of bass will probably need more power. There are exceptions, though. Highly sensitive speakers tend to put out plenty of bass with less power. Yet another reason to look at your speakers’ sensitivity.

For more information on choosing speakers, check out our speaker buying guide here.
Surround sound support

5.1, 7.1, 7.2, 9.1, 11.2…While it is a foregone conclusion that an A/V receiver will support some manner of surround sound, the surround sound formats it can handle are still an important consideration for receiver buyers. Surround sound options have advanced considerably in recent years and the topic is…well…involved. So involved, in fact, that we wrote a separate guide dedicated to it, which is posted here.
Auto-calibration systems

Most mid- to high-level receivers come with some form or another of an auto-setup tool for speaker setup and calibration. While we concede that these tools can be quite useful for those intimidated by their receiver’s user menu, we maintain that they run a distant second to a manual calibration. If auto setup is appealing to you, be sure to read up on which systems work well and which don’t. In any case, we recommend you check out our home theater calibration guide so that you can do the job yourself and do it better.

Yamaha YAS-101 Review

It’s been kind of fun to watch the sound bar progress over the last seven years or so. First there were passive sound bars that simply put a couple of speakers into a wide, short enclosure that looked tidy sitting below a flat panel TV. Eventually, digital amplifiers made their way into sound bars, making them a more convenient proposition.

Then, companies like Polk and Yamaha ushered the sound bar movement into an entirely new direction by figuring out how to produce virtual surround sound from a single sound source sitting in the middle of the room. Yamaha’s YSP-1 made some big waves in the audio biz by using a couple of 4.5-inch drivers with, count ‘em, 40 little 1.5-inch drivers set up in an array, throwing sound all over the room.

The YSP-1 made for an impressive demo, but audio enthusiasts cried for more…specifically, bass. In response, companies like Vizio and Boston Acoustics have since decided to bundle wireless subwoofers with their sound bars. Now that they’ve have caught the attention of the public at large, demand for a slim sound bars that can produce bass without a big box sitting off to the side has grown significantly. It doesn’t hurt that TV manufacturers seem bent on making the speakers built into flat-panel TVs worse and worse, either.

But, we digress. The point is that Yamaha has seen a need and is attempting to fill it with the $300 YAS-101. Did Yamaha crack the big-bass-from-a-small-box code well enough to make a satisfying sounding speaker bar?
yamaha-yas-101-fsr60-wy57800Out of the box

The YAS-101 measures 35 x 3-1/2 x 4-1/2 inches (W x H x D) without its feet or spacer brackets. The feet add ¾ inch of height and the wall spacers add just ½ inch. The whole shebang ways a dainty 9.3 lbs. Cabinet material on the top and bottom panel is a fairly flexible plastic with a glossy black finish that will likely mate well with a wide variety of televisions.

In the box with the sound bar is a remote control, batteries for said remote, a mounting template, a short manual and one 3-foot-long digital optical cable. While we give props to Yamaha for tossing in a free optical cable so that folks can get up and running without heading off to the electronics store, we don’t understand why it didn’t decide to include the two commercially available mounting screws needed for putting the sound bar up on the wall. Good grief. Anyway, plan on hitting the hardware store to pick some up if you want to wall mount. The rest of the process should be a piece of cake with the included template and simple key-hole mounts.
Features

The YAS-101 is a far cry from Yamaha’s famed YSP-1 in terms of driver compliment. Built into the left and right side of the enclosure is a 2.5-inch driver which apparently resides in its own sealed cubby. Two 3-inch “subwoofers” are mounted inside the cabinet toward the right side of the enclosure. You can feel them if you place your hands on the grill that lines the bottom of the sound bar. Two ports open up on the opposing ends of the cabinet. We didn’t pry the sound bar open, but we have a gut feeling the bass ports wind around quite a bit in the cabinet to maximize bass output.

The front of the sound bar has four low-profile control buttons and six small LED indicators. Otherwise the front face is very clean.

On the back of the sound bar we found a recessed connection bay that included two digital optical inputs, one digital coaxial input, a “system control” output and a subwoofer output.

yamaha-yas-101-rear-inputs-detail

There’s even a clever rear-mounted IR flasher, which will read your TV’s remote control code and flash it out the back, just in case the sound bar covers up your TV’s IR eye.

What’s not so clever is the lack of an analog audio input. Either RCA jacks or a ⅛-inch input would have done, but the fact that neither exist on the YAS-101 seems like a pretty major oversight. Most competing sound bars include an analog input for folks that might want to quickly hook up their mobile devices for a quick music solution.

The YAS-101 offers three processing features to enhance the listener’s experience. “UniVolume” levels out volume dynamics and keeps everything at one volume level. For TV, this is a great feature. We’ve all been slap-chopped out of our seats late at night a few times. For movies, UniVolume keeps those explosions toned down so you don’t wake the kids while watching late night flicks. Keep it turned off for music, though.

yamaha-yas-101-front-detail

“Clear Voice” does as its name implies and bumps up the vocal bandwidth to make dialog more intelligible. We found that it worked to a point, but simply preferred the sound with it turned off.

Finally, “AIR SURROUND XTREME” (you’ve gotta use all caps any time the word extreme is involved) is probably the most important processing feature in the YAS-101. This is Yamaha’s simulated surround system which, by Yamaha’s description, recreates 7.1 surround from two speakers. This type of marketing seems a little much. Yes, the sound bar does offer simulated surround, but to insinuate that you are getting anything remotely close to seven distinct channels of surround sound from two small speakers feels misleading to us. So, let’s just acknowledge now that this is a simulated surround system that creates the impression of surround sound. We let you know how effective it was in our performance review.

We have a feeling some may wonder why it is that the sound bar has no HDMI input, so let’s cover that quickly. The reason is that very few TVs offer an HDMI output, whereas it is very common to find an optical digital output. If not optical, there will usually be a coaxial digital output.
Performance

We tested the YAS-101 in our media room where it would see plenty of TV and gaming action, plus a little music for the sake of drilling down to the finer sonic details. We connected it via the provided digital optical cable directly to a PlayStation 3 and, later, an Xbox 360, since our two Sharp LC-42SB45U TVs require a sort of break-out cable for coaxial digital audio output.

The YAS-101 makes a pretty good first impression. Even at the lowest setting, the two built-in 3-inch subwoofers manage to generate some surprisingly low bass at an equally surprising volume level. We moved through a few movie clips and for a good 20 minutes we marveled at the level of bass output the YAS-101 was capable of.

yamaha-yas-101-front-black

As we continued listening, the initial shock over the big bass began to wear off and we started listening to the sound bar’s bass response from less of a quantitative perspective and more from a qualitative point of view. To drill down to the nitty gritty, we queued up some music tracks we’re sickeningly familiar with and paid close attention.

What we learned is that, yes, the YAS-101 gets down pretty low. We’d say it is working well down to 55Hz, which is on par with some inexpensive outboard subwoofers. The bass wasn’t loose, but it wasn’t musically taught either. It lacked a little bit of the punch we look for in a balanced speaker system but, come on, we’re talking about a sound bar. Taking that into consideration, the YAS-101 did a pretty great job tackling bass on its own.

The two 2.5inch drivers are responsible for everything from 150Hz and above, meaning a good amount of midrange and all of the treble region. We were pretty happy with what they were able to produce. The high frequencies in particular were clean and glassy, without moving into the metallic region where dazzling turns into annoying. Even overblown movie effects came across with just the right amount of zeal, a tough trick to pull off without some dedicated processing.

yamaha-yas-101-rear-inputs-black

Midrange seemed just fine for movies and TV, but you could hear the YAS-101’s limitations when listening to music. The lower end of the midrange region and the upper end of the bass region is where a lot of the “meat and potatoes” of sound lives and, even though the subwoofer is rated to play up to 150Hz, we don’t think it is getting up there with as much bravado as it does in the lower region. Likewise, the 2.5-inch drivers may be rated down to 150hz, but we think they might be rolling off a little early. The result is a little bit of a hole in the frequency response that, quite frankly, didn’t surprise us.

It is important to remember that we’re testing a sound bar that will be used for TV and movies some 90 percent of the time. For those uses, the YAS-101 works extremely well. No one ever said this was an audiophile music solution, but we will say that we think this sound bar sounds far better than many pricey desktop audio solutions we’ve heard over the years.
Conclusion

If Yamaha’s aim was to create a full sounding, self-contained, slim sound bar solution at an accessible price, we’d say they pretty much nailed it on the head with the YAS-101. Though not without its limitations, we think this sound bar does more with one box than some solutions do with two and, at $300, we think this will make an attractive add-on for those who demand better sound than their TV can provide on its own, but don’t have much space to give up. For now, the YAS-101 is the one-piece entry level sound bar to beat.
Highs

    Substantial low bass for a small enclosure
    Clean, controlled high frequencies
    Univolume keeps loud ads at bay
    One digital optical cable included

Lows

    No analog audio input
    Surround mode steals from fidelity
    Mounting screws not included

Munitio Call of Duty MW3 Billets 9MM Review

This is our first review of a product from Munitio, a fresh face on the headphone scene. The San Diego, CA-based earphone company might never have appeared on our radar had these special-edition 9mm Billets not arrived to correspond with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.

If you aren’t already familiar with Munitio, here’s a quick primer: The company makes earphones shaped like bullets. It’s a pretty clever idea, considering earphones tend to take on a bullet-like shape naturally and, as reality TV shows like Sons of Guns, Top Shot, and American Guns are a testament to, guns and ammo are all the rage right now. Thanks to TV shows like that and the increasingly realistic nature of first-person shooter games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, it’s entirely possible the 12-year-old kid down the street knows way more about the PM-63 RAK than you ever will.

So, it makes sense that these special-edition 9mm Billets wouldn’t be targeted at audiophiles or anyone over the age of 30, really. Rather, these earphones are going to appeal to younger listeners who are probably more interested in brands like Skullcandy and Beats by Dr. Dre than they are in Shure and Sennheiser. We can dig it. That’s why we approached the 9mm Billets from the perspective of an avid gamer or frequent electronica listener in an effort to determine if they deliver the sort of sound that younger listeners want to get out of their headphones. We also compared them to similarly voiced headphones on the market as well as some of our reference in-ears. Read on to see how Munitio stacks up.
Out of the box

One piece of information that seems to need more prolific clarification than the tiny print on Munitio’s product packaging provides is that these earphones are not intended for game console use. It’s totally fair to assume they might be, considering Call of Duty: MW3 is plastered all over the box, so considered yourself notified: These are standard earphones for use with mobile entertainment devices like iPods, MP3 players and portable gaming systems and will not work with consoles like the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.

munitio-billets-9mm-packing-accessories

Pulling the red ribbon from the bottom of the high-quality box reveals a slide-out that contains the earphones and accessories. The earphones and additional ear tips are nestled in a molded piece of grey foam under which we found a sturdy black carrying pouch and two ear-hooks.

The provided ear tips come with black and “COD-green” cores finished with smoky grey flanges, each in small, medium and large sizes. The presentation is pretty nice. We think these will make a sweet gift come Christmas time.
Features

The housing of each earphone “bullet” is said to be machined from single piece of lightweight, aircraft-grade aluminum. Subtle striations in the housing reinforce the bullet effect, as does the high pitched “clink” you get when the earphones strike each other. The rubber cables are reinforced with Kevlar for added strength and feel smooth to the touch.

munitio-billets-9mm-headphones

About six inches down from the left earphone is the in-line mic with a single-button control. We’ve made our disapproval of single-button controls well known, so we won’t belabor the point. We’d just prefer to see a three-button remote, that’s all.

Further down the cord, where the cable splits into a Y, is a machined aluminum cylinder stamped with the COD:MW3 logo. Like the earphone housing, it has a solid feel and adds to the over-all cool factor of the ‘phones.

munitio-billets-9mm-call-of-duty

The 9mm earphones use, wouldn’t ya know it, a 9mm driver with Neodymium magnet. [Pro tip: Neodymium provides more magnetic force with less material and, therefore, less weight. The use of Neodymium rare earth magnets has been popular amongst headphone and speaker makers until recently when soaring prices earned it a bad rep and caused it to fall out of favor with much of the industry.]

These earphones sport some with some pretty typical specs: Frequency response is rated at 20Hz to 20kHz, impedance is 16 Ohms, sensitivity is 101dBat 1kHz at 0.1v. The cord for these headphones measures in just shy of four feet. Weight comes in at 22g.
munitio-billets-9mm-earbuds-drivers-verticalPerformance

The test bench for this review involved an iPhone, Dell N5110 laptop, a NuForce uDAC-2, HeadRoom Micro Amp and Micro DAC, Cardas USB and interconnect cables, and a collection of music files including MP3 (128k – 320k), WAV, 96/24 FLAC and 96/24 DVD-Audio.

We gave the 9mm Billets a good 50 hours of break-in time before we started listening, then we gave them another 20 hours. These earphones benefit a great deal from an extended break-in period. Out of the box, the only thing apparent about the 9mm was that they were capable of producing a lot of bass. Our gut told us there was more to them than that, so we gave them a little extra break-in time. Seventy hours may seem like a lot to ask but, hey, sometimes that’s how it goes with this stuff.

With a properly chosen ear tip, these earphones provide an excellent seal and just enough passive noise isolation to make moderate noise disappear when music is being played. The tight seal has a way of reinforcing bass frequencies, which we’ll get to shortly.

In terms of comfort, we’d have to give the 9mm Billets a 7 out of 10. Good, but not fantastic. The problem for us wasn’t a matter of weight, just that the ear-tip that provided the best seal and best sound for our ears also had a way of being felt constantly. Our ears never got fatigued, but we never forgot that we were wearing them, as we have with some other earphones like the NOCS NS400. The weight of the cord is generally not a problem, but moving around a lot did cause the earphones to break their seal with our ears and, eventually, fall out. Munitio provides some detachable ear hooks which help keep the earphones from falling, but didn’t do anything to help keep a tight seal. Not a huge problem, just don’t plan on going jogging with these.

As for sound: These earphones are unapologetically punchy and basscentric. Not only that, but the midrange and a good deal of the lower treble band seem rolled off. Then, in the very upper treble region, some of the sparkle is restored. The result of this kind of curve is a sound that will probably work best with certain types of music and suit a specific listener’s tastes. We can see the 9mm Billets working well for electronic music as they will bring out the bass in a big way, subdue the often super-hot upper mids and some of the treble, yet let just enough sizzle through to sound alive.

From the perspective of a 36-year-old audiophile, these are not a pair of earphones we would ever choose to listen to. The midrange is too recessed and the midbass is overwhelming to the point of being humorous. In general, there’s a lack of balance that’s just not going to satisfy, shall we say, more “seasoned” listeners.

munitio-billets-9mm-rear-verticalBut, as we mentioned before, these earphones aren’t geared to satisfy snarky audiophiles. They are meant for younger listeners and the music and games they like to listen to and play. How do you get a younger listener’s point of view? Ask one and hope they will pay attention and feign interest long enough to give you a qualitative answer.

We asked an 11-year-old gaming fanatic who enjoys listening to everything from Nickelback to Aretha Franklin on his iPod touch for his opinion (and he has plenty of them…trust us). For this little experiment, we had an 11 year-old test subject-we’ll call him “Josh” — compare the 9mm Billets to a set of t-Jays Three and the recently reviewed NOCS NS400.

First, we have to give credit to Josh for being genuinely interested in helping us out and offering a thoughtful opinion. Second, we want to acknowledge that, sure, we only polled one youth. However, this particular 11-year-old is the poster child for the 9mm Billets demographic: An avid gamer, extremely excited about the release of COD:MW3 and a big fan of music and technology.

Josh used the same three songs on his iPod touch as test tracks for his mini-review. We gave him no information about the earphones and offered no comments. He tried the NOCS NS400 first and noted that he liked the clear vocals and “amazing sounding snare drum” but wished they had more bass.

We then handed him the 9mm Billets. His eyes widened immediately as he took note of the bullet-styled earphones, then widened more so as he noticed the Call of Duty logo. “I’ve heard about these on YouTube”, he said. After a listen, Josh explained that he loved the bass response and thought it was much better than the previous set but that the vocals and guitars seemed like they were “covered up a little” Good ears, kid.

Finally, Josh tried the t-Jays Three. His opinion was that they were somewhere between the first two. He tried to care, but it was clear his mind was still on the 9mm Billets. “Can I try the bullets again?”

He tried the “bullets” again and soon after proclaimed they were his favorite. Even though he felt the vocals and guitar weren’t very clear, he was quick to point out that they sounded “good enough” and that he really, really liked the design. He then asked if he could get a pair for Christmas. Mission accomplished, Munitio.
Conclusion

Munitio’s special edition 9mm Billets are a well-designed, ruggedly built set of earphones that offer a distinct and robust sound, even if it’s a distant one from the accuracy audiophiles prize. While some of the “rugged” earphones we’ve recently tested just sounded cheap, the sound signature here seems thoughtfully conceived and executed. We think these headphones will be extremely popular with listeners age 10 to 20 and will likely be a prized enough possession to justify their $90 price tag.
Highs:

    Rugged Design
    Good seal and passive noise isolation
    Huge bass output
    Plenty of punch

Lows:

    Overbearing midbass at times
    Recessed midrange
    Occasionally brittle highs

Canon announces the 1D X

Canon has announced its newest DSLR, the 1D X, a pricey camera that will improve on image quality while outpacing its predecessors.

As predicted, Canon has announced its newest DSLR, the EOS-1D X camera. The latest in Canon’s D-series lineup is a beast, too, combining the high-speed shooting and fast processing features the series is known for as well as bumping up the specs considerably. Take a quick look at what this thing is packing:

    61-point AF system
    1 GB Ethernet port
    Three DIGIC image processors
    Up to 12 fps RAW shooting
    18-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor
    ISO 100-51,200 (in standard range)

Clearly, Canon has outfitted the 1D X to continue its lineup of fast-shooting, action-friendly DSLRs, all while seemingly improving on image quality from its predecessors. Images will supposedly be less noisy at extreme ISO settings and the improved processor system will reportedly offer truer colors and more natural contrast, even in low lighting. Which is saying something given how well-received previous models have been.

Video has also been given a makeover in the 1D X. Canon has included continuous Full HD video recording for longer movies sessions (nearly 30 minutes) and new compression files—one in an editing format and another completely compressed file.

Of course, all that will cost you: $6,800 to be exact. Start saving now, it will be available in March of 2012.

Canon EOS Rebel T3 Review

We almost felt like Sookie Stackhouse in HBO’s True Blood. We closed our eyes and the next thing we knew, a year was gone. In this case we didn’t travel in “fairy space time,” but blinked and Canon sent out a replacement for the XS and XSi DSLRs. The company sprinkled some fairy dust on those older cameras by adding 720p HD video. Were we enchanted by this new DSLR? You won’t have to watch 12 episodes to find out.
Features and design

Pick up the older 10-megapixel XS, and you’ll have trouble telling it from the T3 other than the model number on the front. The rear is another story, as there’s a slightly larger LCD screen, a button for Live View and a red dot next to it indicating “videos taken here” on the T3. Although there are a few other changes we’ll discuss, the new Rebel looks like your basic Canon DSLR. If you’ve looked at or owned one over the past few years, you won’t be shocked by it. Yet there is a bit of style, as it’s not only available in black but with brown, red or metallic gray bodies; our review sample was black. The camera feels rather light, and you’ll have no problem telling this one from a Nikon D7000, but that excellent DSLR costs twice as much. The T3 body measures 5.1 x 3.9 x 3.1 (width x height x depth) and weighs 17.4 ounces.

Canon EOS Rebel T3 front sensorThe front of the T3 features a red-eye reduction lamp that also doubles at the self-timer lamp, a mono mic, lens release button and, of course, the Canon EF lens mount (it accepts EF-S glass). The kit is supplied with a starter 18-55mm Image Stabilized lens. It’s OK, but you’re much better off spending extra for a higher-quality one. The grip is also here, and it’s quite comfortable with a nicely-placed, angled shutter button with a nearby scroll wheel for making menu adjustments.

The top has an auto pop-up flash, hot shoe, mode dial, power switch and a button to manually pop the flash open. The flash does double-duty as an AF Assist lamp, so you have to open it for best results. This is a weird setup, and we’re not fans of this system. It almost seems like a lightning storm is going off as you press the shutter half-way. And even if you don’t want the flash to fire, it’ll go off. The 14-megapixel Nikon D3100 –which is slightly more expensive — has an AF Assist lamp on the front. On a more positive note, the mode dial has almost everything you’d want within easy reach starting with Auto, PASM, some popular scene options and movie. The main drawback is the fact the dial doesn’t turn 360 degrees, so if you want to go from movie (the last on one end) to manual you have to turn 12 clicks. Is this the end of the world? Not really, but Canon should’ve made this entry-level DSLR as friendly as possible.

Canon EOS Rebel T3 Rear displayThe rear has the most external changes vis a vis the XS, but newcomers will have little trouble identifying the various buttons as they have large labels. Here you’ll find the viewfinder with diopter control, a 95-percent field of view and .8x magnification, specs you’ll typically find with low-priced DSLRs (the D3100 is similar). Below the viewfinder is a basic, fixed-position, 2.7-inch LCD rated a so-so 230K pixels. Is it terrible? No, but you do get what you pay for. The D3100 has a slightly larger 3-inch display also rated 230K.

To the right of the screen are the usual 2011 controls: exposure compensation/delete, Live View/record with the red dot next to it and Q for Quick Menu. Nearby is a speaker and the four-way controller with center set button. Here you have access to AF type, white balance, burst/self-timer and ISO (range is 100 to 6400). Other keys include display, playback and menu. On the top right are AE/FE Lock and AF point selection. In playback, these will magnify or reduce your images.

On the left side is a compartment with USB and mini HDMI out, as well as an input for a remote control. The bottom of the made-in-Taiwan T3 has a compartment for the lithium-ion battery and a slot for SD cards (it accepts SDXC and Eye-Fi media).
What’s in the box

The carton has everything you need to get started other than a memory card. You get the camera, kit lens, body cap, neck strap and USB cable. The battery is rated a very good 800 shots per CIPA and you also get a plug-in charger. Canon supplies a multi-language basic instruction manual (84 pages in English) and two CD-ROMs. One has the full owner’s manual as a PDFm and the other is Canon’s software suite for handling images and developing RAW files.

After charging the battery and popping in a 4GB Class 6 SDHC card, it was time to take some photos and videos.
Performance and use

Canon EOS Rebel T3 sample photo: TransformerAs time goes by in Digital Camera Land, resolution increases, just like the Federal deficit. The older XS was a 10-megapixel DSLR without HD video capability. The 2011 Rebel T3 features a 12.2-megapixel CMOS chip and takes 720p HD videos at 30 fps. We set the T3 to maximum resolution (4272 x 2848) and best compression in still mode. This was done because as a low-priced DSLR, it doesn’t have the heavy-duty firepower of more expensive models. Although it grabs three frames per second, it only shoots five RAW images or one RAW+JPEG before taking a breather. On a more positive note, you can breeze through 830 JPEGs in continuous mode. Since we wanted to shoot some little-kid relatives swimming, JPEG burst was the setting for that activity. Besides summer pool time, we shot flowers, foliage and other scenery. We also took the camera with us on a visit to Times Square and ran into a Transformer robot — only in New York! We also had some fun with July 4 fireworks display. When done, content was downloaded to a PC for review, prints were made and we checked out the 720p videos on a 50-inch plasma via HDMI.

Before the envelope is opened, we’ll state the Rebel T3 is very simple to operate, and anyone making the move from a point-and-shoot will have few problems making the transition. Unlike most aim-and-forget cameras, the T3 focuses quickly, has speedy shot-to-shot times and the 3fps burst mode is fine for fast-moving subjects (i.e. kids swimming). Battery life is outstanding.

We did have some button layout issues, however. When shooting the fireworks, naturally it was dark and we had trouble feeling for the record button, which is in between exposure compensation and Quick menu. A separate round record button would be much appreciated. A few more scene modes would help as well. One would imagine a camera designed for beginners would have a fireworks mode. Well, the T3 doesn’t, and it only has five basic ones. Guess they want newbies to learn how to capture images quickly. To be fair, the Nikon D3100 doesn’t have a fireworks setting either.

We took a wide variety of images and videos, starting in auto then moving through the mode dial. For the most part, shots and movies taken in daylight were quite good. Colors were on the money, and we had a lot of fun playing with exposure compensation while shooting sun reflections on skyscrapers. Like any DSLR, the T3 has plenty of tweaks to fine-tune your images. We shot in the default Standard Picture Styles, but you can punch this up, if that’s your taste.

Canon EOS Rebel T3 sample photo: Swimmer

We were disappointed in the overall sharpness of the T3, especially for close-ups. We attribute this to the kit lens and to fact we shot many flowers with the flash closed because we wanted the available light ambiance and disabled the AF Assist. When the flash was up, things were much sharper, but of course, you had the extra light.

Canon cameras typically capture warm indoor shots under tungsten lights — without the flash, of course — and the T3 is no exception. When indoors, shift to program, change the white balance and your results will be much more accurate.

The Rebel has an ISO range of 100 to 6400. Our test subject held up well to ISO 800 then color accuracy began to fade. Of course, there was heavy digital noise at 3200 and 6400, but surprisingly you could probably get away with a 3×5 print or display your images on the web. It’s the rare P&S that could deliver these results. Still we’d keep at ISO 800 or less for best results.

Although the T3 only takes 720p clips at 30fps, the results were surprisingly good even on a 50-inch screen. And the mono sound was quite robust. Focusing in movie mode is good as the camera locked on target fairly well. It’s no camcorder but for short clips, it’s a fun tool.
Conclusion

The Canon EOS Rebel T3 is a mixed bag. We have some difficulty recommending it wholeheartedly — newbies should closely look at the $650, 14-megapixel Nikon D3100 instead if they’re moving up to an entry-level DSLR even though it costs more. It’s a better camera. As an end note to the weekend, we took a bunch of shots with an older 16-megapixel, 10fps AVCHD Sony SLT-A55, a $799 DSLR with an 18-55mm lens. That one was so much superior, it was comical. You’re better off waiting for the new Sony A35 or picking up the older A33 for $699 with a lens. In cameras, you really do get what you pay for. The T3 doesn’t deliver what it should, even for $549.
Highs:

    Responsive, good quality 12.2-megapixel DSLR
    720p HD Videos at 30 fps
    3fps burst mode

Lows:

    No front AF Assist lamp (uses built-in flash)
    Images not super sharp
    Awkward control placement

Olympus PEN E-PL2 Review

The latest model in Olympus’ Micro Four Thirds PEN line up continues to appeal to novices ready for a more technical experience. Like the E-PL1, the E-PL2 serves as a stepping stone for photographers who have mastered the pocket point-and-shoot, but are wary of big-body DSLR investments. The E-PL2 begins where its predecessor left off, and still includes the 12.3-megapixel, high-speed Live MOS image sensor found in the more professional Olympus E-30 and E-620 DSLRs. Entry-level shooters will be satisfied with expanded features and sharpened capabilities packed into a similarly stylish and conveniently modified body.
Features and design

We saw a lot of this design at CES: camera bodies in multiple hues with vintage, retro feels. It’s inarguably cool, and anyone impressed by the massive array of colors Canon and Nikon offer in their point and shoots will be happy that the step up in camera performance doesn’t necessarily eliminate color choice. Olympus offers the E-PL2 in black, silver, red and white.

For more experienced photographers, the specifics behind the E-PL2’s ergonomics might matter more. The E-PL2 measures 115.4 mm x 72.7 mm and offers a 3-inch LCD screen, which is both larger than last year’s 2.7-incher, and has double the resolution (460K versus 230K). It’s slightly slimmer than its predecessor, weighing in at approximately 12 ounces. Just to give you an idea, the Nikon D700 weighs 35 ounces, and the Canon PowerShot S95 weighs six ounces.

Olympus told us that the updated model is better suited for one-handed shooting (some complained the E-PL1 wasn’t particularly easy to hold), and the power button has been altered. On the E-PL1, it was nearly identical to the shutter button, and now has been redesigned to prevent accidentally shutting it off or on by being more discreetly built in. The pop-up flash, hot shoe, mic, and mode dial (which remains unchanged) still sit on top.

The screen upgrade is fairly important, since without a viewfinder, photographers are entirely reliant on the 3-inch LCD to shoot in Manual, or use the menu options at all. Anyone familiar with a DSLR might initially struggle with operating the controls, but it just takes some getting used to.

Fujifilm FinePix X100 Review

Looking at the Fujifilm FinePix X100, you might be reminded of a simpler time and the age of analog photography. But once you get your hands on the camera and take it for a spin, that notion will be shattered. The FinePix X100 is a complicated camera that’s every bit as sophisticated as a modern DSLR. Of course, it also produces the same high-quality results as those professional devices, and is the first to introduce a hybrid viewfinder. As a sacrifice, the X100 comes with a steep learning curve and doesn’t offer much to help you out. But if you are a photography lover and viewfinder advocate, then you’ll likely be able to get past the X100’s quirks.
Fujifilm-FinePix-X100-frontFeatures and design

There’s no denying the X100’s outer beauty: It’s an eye-catching, breathtaking camera that is sure to turn heads. This type of vintage, retro look is a big trend right now, with brands like Canon, Olympus and Sony all putting their own spins on classic styles. But there’s a big difference between these competing devices and the X100. These cameras are more like a modern take on throwback styles, rather than replications of the real thing. The X100 may pack new technology, but everything about its body is antique – in a good way. Yes, it’s obviously incredibly reminiscent of Leica’s boxy look and solid feel, but the similarities don’t detract from just how pretty the X100 is.

Fujifilm-FinePix-X100-top

The world’s first hybrid viewfinder is the X100’s groundbreaking technology, and for the most part, it lives up to its hype. It gives photographers the ability to switch a true optical viewfinder and an electronic viewfinder through the same viewing port, with the flip of a switch. Competiting mirror-less and Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras put you at the mercy of the LCD display, which comes with a slew of hang-ups: Difficult viewing in certain lighting conditions and inaccurate aspect ratio being just two. The X100’s viewfinder not only gives you the traditional feel of setting up the shot through an optical viewfinder, but also provides all the vital data of an electronic viewfinder right before your eyes (or eye, rather). You can exist entirely within the viewfinder if you want to, but the option of the 2.8-inch LCD display remains below. Of course, being the first hybrid viewfinder on the market also means there are some quirks, which we will get to later. But it’s a valiant step forward, and the lack of an optical viewfinder is one of the biggest gripes advanced shooters (including us) have had with mirror-less and MFT cameras.

Fujifilm-FinePix-X100-displayThe hybrid viewfinder, despite its true innovation, is still sort of the X100’s gimmick. Its incredibly powerful sensor is what actually packs a punch. Its 12.3 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor is DSLR quality, and your images show it. The CMOS sensor works with the camera’s EXR Processor to deliver its impressive image results, and this is where you’ll really see it set apart from MFT cameras that you might think belong in the same bracket.
What’s in the box

The very fancy box for the FinePix X100 houses the camera, a NP-95 lithium-ion rechargeable battery and its charger, shoulder strip, metal strap clips with covers, clip attaching tool, USB cable, CD (with MyFinePix Studio, FinePixViewer, and a RAW file converter), and the user manual.
Performance and use

As far as pure handling goes, the X100 is a heavy device that isn’t as easy to swing around as a DSLR. It weighs in at 15.7-ounces and could take an eye out. Of course, the chassis has no give to it, so despite its antique vibe, the thing seems downright unbreakable. (Keyword: seems. Don’t test it.) The X100 captures images in JPEG or RAW files, and a dedicated button for RAW capture can be found in the lower right corner, which was quite convenient.

The X100 is as complicated as it is beautiful. Shooting with the X100 is an intensive and eventually rewarding process. Every setting a photographer could want to manipulate is in there… somewhere. If you get tired digging through foreign menu systems, you won’t enjoy working with the X100.

Fujifilm-FinePix-X100-angleYou really will need to be patient as you familiarize yourself with the camera. The in-camera, electronic UI is just downright isolating and frustrating – which is too bad, because there are so many worthwhile settings to play around with in there. For instance, there are a slew of white balance options for just about every environment you could be shooting in, but the presentation leaves something to be desired.

That said, after playing around with the settings we were incredibly impressed by the quality. There was little to no noise at low or high ISOs – it was on par with DSLR results. Handling a camera this size also means we defaulted to using the LCD display and had to wean ourselves off it a bit, but the viewfinder offered crisp, clear views and all the information we would have wanted from the display. Better yet, it did this without making us squint.

x100-sample-picture-fire-station

The camera’s autofocus wasn’t as fast as we expected, but still got the job done. The only times we really felt the AF was tested were in particularly poorly lit situations. The shutter, on the other hand, was remarkably fast. We were able to capture clear images of cars speeding along the freeway from an overpass without issue.

The top two dials for exposure compensation and shutter speed are sturdy and easy to manipulate, but the back panel dials are easily accidentally rotated. Most other button placements are fine, but there is one glaring exception we can’t quite get over. The AF controls are on the left side edge of the camera, so to use them you have to turn the camera sideways. It’s a small oversight, but an annoying one nonetheless.

Unlike many of the MFT cams it competes with, this is a fixed-lens camera. It features a fast, semi wide-angle 23mm F2 lens, which is equivalent to your 35mm F2 lens on a full-frame camera. The X100 can thank its Fujinon lens for a great deal of its superior imaging, and users who are put off by the lack of interchangeable lenses or zoom lens capability will either disregard the camera immediately or soon get over it after seeing the results.

x100-sample-picture-flower

The camera has a CIPA rating of 300 shots, which is fine but not outstanding when it comes to battery life. We did have to charge the camera almost immediately after beginning testing, which is of course a rather painless process. If you defer to stills, you’re likely to get better battery life than if you use the camera’s 1280×720 HD video recording (which features stereo sound). Recording movies gives you options to shoot in sepia or wide screen, but other than that it’s fairly limited – in fact you’ll be cut off at the 10-minute mark. Autofocusing is also an issue that will leave the camera searching for its subject and refocusing while you film, and you’re unable to adjust manual focus once you’ve begun recording. The hybrid viewfinder’s use is eliminated here as well.

Of course, if you’re looking for a camera with extremely adept recording capabilities, the X100 is not for you: It’s truly built and made for still shooting. If you intend to record movies, then using the X100 will be an exercise in near futility.
Conclusion

While the FinePix X100 takes some bold and appreciated steps forward for digital photography, don’t confuse it as a user-friendly device. We will say that initial frustrations gave way, and shooting with the X100 grew on us. But generally, this device is for camera buffs extremely comfortable with manual settings and who intend to put the camera through its paces – otherwise you’re just blowing your money. Of course, it’s also a camera photography hobbyists and enthusiasts will want to at least give a whirl: It boasts groundbreaking technology and the hybrid viewfinder is argument enough for taking the X100 for a spin. And if this is just the beginning, we’re excited to see what’s in store for the next-gen models.

It’s a niche product for sure, and one that the most seasoned of photographers will be excited by for good reason. But if you don’t consider yourself one of these brave souls or intend to dedicate copious amounts of time to learning to many, many ins and outs of this camera, then we’d advise admiring its beauty from afar.
Highs:

    Hybrid viewfinder is everything it’s cracked up to be
    Sturdy chassis, vintage look
    Yields impressive images

Lows:

    Steep learning curve
    Pricey
    Slow AF
    Complicated handling, unfamiliar physical and in-camera UI