Travelling gear

, posted: 10-Jun-2012 14:16

A recent trip to Vietnam resulted in this story about Intel's Assembly and Test plant in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City - and some long overdue rest and recreation, thank goodness. I'd never been to Vietnam before and didn't know what to expect so wanted to travel light. This is a bit tricky if you have work to do, but I was quite pleased with the light load of electronics this time, compared to what I've been lugging along in the past.

Dell lent me an XPS 13 Ultrabook, which was excellent to work on. Here's the Dell product video for it:

The XPS 13 looks great with carbon fibre and aluminium body and feels very sturdy even though it's light and thin. It's the right size for a portable device which is to say that it's big enough to work on comfortably, yet small enough to carry with you everywhere.

With an SSD and an Intel Core i7 CPU on board, the XPS 13 ran Adobe Photoshop CS6 without skipping a beat. The limiting factor for photo editing on the XPS 13 was the 1,366 by 768 screen, as today's hi-res digital photographs are huge but thanks the system being so powerful, zooming in and out and scrolling around was quick and easy. I expected the 4GB RAM to be an issue but the SSD meant that swapping out to disk was fast so overall, the XPS 13 was great to use. Minor niggles: the bottom left hand corner could get hot if the system was working hard and the fans kicked in; also, the Corning Gorilla Glass LCD has somewhat limited viewing angles and rests on top of the keyboard which leave marks on it.

As with other Ultrabooks I've tried out, the touchpad is way too nervous and sensitive. Dell and its touchpad supplier needs to fix this, as it's really annoying.

The slim body on the XPS 13 meant there's no room for an Ethernet port, which I needed at one hotel that has a daft policy of offering free wired Internet access, but charging quite a bit for Wi-Fi and forcing you to rent a wireless router. That wasn't too hard to fix with a USB adapter though.

Arguably the best feature on the XPS 13 was the long battery life. Although Dell's Extended Life power saver software insisted on turning itself off each time the system went to sleep, I would routinely get six to eight hours of use out of the XPS 13. It charges the battery fast too.

If I've got it right, the system I had costs a shade under $2,200 so it's not cheap compared to say a similarly-specced Mac Book Air but from what I can tell, you get better battery life on the XPS 13. Dropping down to a Core i5 processor and 128GB SSD means an XPS 13 costs $1,700 which is probably a better deal even though it's nice to have the additional drive space and more CPU-oomph.

These days words alone don't tell the whole story, so I have to shoot stills and video as well (which I really enjoy actually). Samsung lent the small and mirrorless NX11:


Samsung NX11

Samsung is a new camera brand and I was wondering if the NX11 would deliver in terms of image quality. I needn't have worried and can report that the compact Sammy which is a fair bit smaller than DSLRs with mirrors is capable of taking some very good pictures indeed. The NX11 has a large, APS-C sensor with 14.6 megapixel resolution and the optics seem really good. The 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit zoom is small and features image stabilisation that works great.

Here's a handheld night time shot from walking around in Hanoi to show what I mean:

Hanoi traffic at night

It's a JPEG straight out of the NX11, without treatment and was exposed at f/3.5 and 1/10 of a second. The moving cars and xe om in the foreground are blurry due to the 1/10s shutter release but the image stabilisation kept the immobile traffic and the background free of "hand shake". Without image stabilisation, you can pretty much forget about getting a clear picture without a tripod.

Noise isn't too bad either: the JPEG above was shot at ISO 800, and is perfectly usable. I wouldn't go above ISO 800 though as you detail starts to disintegrate at higher sensitivities. The camera is reasonably fast too, with large JPEG+RAW being recorded quickly to the Lexar Professional 133X SD card I used.

As mentioned, the NX11 supports RAW images too and I ended up using that format a lot, and tweaking exposure and sharpening the pics in Photoshop. That's just me being OCD though, as the JPEGs look mostly fine straight from the NX11. Also, the RAW files are large at 25Mbytes each, compared to 4-5Mbyte for JPEGs.

I never ventured into this trendy Hanoi bar:


but the picture of the sign was taken with the 18-55mm kit zoom at its widest, 1/80s, f/3.5 and ISO 640 exposure and then processed a little in Photoshop.

JPEG of Saigon's Notre Dame Cathedral, no post processing and shot at f/6.7, 1/250s and ISO 200.

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

For that picture, I used the Samsung f/3.5-6.3 18-200mm super zoom which was the other lens I carried with me. I thought it was pretty good too, well-built with fine tolerances, operating smoothly and producing sharp images. It looks oversized on the little NX11 though. The huge range, equivalent to 28-320mm on 35mm, was nice to have. Like most super zooms, the 18-200mm can be a bit soft at the extreme ends of the range but it's nothing too major. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to source some of the small pancakes Samsung has in its lens range. They don't have image stabilisation, but are fast and according to reviews I've read, meant to be sharp too without costing the earth.

My main problem with the lenses - and it may be the NX11 - was that they sometimes couldn't lock the autofocus at the tele-end of the zoom range. If you backed off a bit, the autofocus would lock on but otherwise, I had to use manual focusing.

Speaking of focusing - and composing pictures - I don't know if I could live without a viewfinder. The AMOLED screen on the NX11 is really good and encourages you to try different angles with the camera away from your eyes, but some times, a viewfinder is a must. Samsung's electronic one works just fine, although as expected, it's not as clear as the much bulkier, optical viewfinders in other DSLRs. I didn't miss having an optical viewfinder at all in fact.

I didn't end up shooting video very much. The above MPEG-4 was shot with the 18-200mm lens at 200mm or so, and 1280 by 720 and 30fps HD which is what the NX11 maxes out at. The bit rate is 9,470kbps and sound is recorded in mono and 64kbps. I was holding the NX11 in my hands, hence the slight wobble. Usual YouTube video clip processing caveats apply.

The NX11 will be replaced by the NX20 soon, which has a larger 20.3mpixel sensor and other updates like Wi-Fi and an articulated rear LCD. At this stage, I don't know what the pricing will be like but if it's in the $950 - $1,100 range including kit lenses, Samsung will be duking it out with Canon and Nikon entry level DSLRs, not to mention Sony's mirrorless Alpha and NEX cameras.

I like the compact size of the NX11, and the images I got out of it. Fingers crossed, I'll get to try the NX20 soon too.

Vietnam is the land of cheap and decently fast 3G, and the HTC One X I used there saved my rear end as a Wi-Fi hotspot as I had deadlines to meet.


One pro tip: working for Australia and NZ is almost impossible from Vietnam, due to the time zone difference. The One X is reviewed here by me and those impressions still stand with the exception of a firmware update that has made the camera work much better. Travelling with the One X was surprisingly useful and not just from a work perspective. Google Maps was reasonably accurate in Vietnam and apps like Tripadvisor are useful; not that you should rely totally on them, because the Vietnamese know the power they have with restaurants and other places trying to get as many positive reviews in as possible. Since my tieng Viet wasn't that good, it was handy to be able to translate stuff and take pictures of food that looked good - and I tell you, Vietnam has lots of stunning food - but you didn't know the name of and then show to waiters when you order.

Going to back to the 3G, how does 150,000 dong or NZ$9 a month for 5GB of prepay HSDPA grab you? Vietnam is a poor country but even so, coming back to NZ and seeing how the telcos here charge like wounded bulls for the same technology is just depressing.

Other related posts:
Sony Tablet S reviewed
Nokia N9 reviewed
Blackberry Playbook

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