Monday, April 28, 2014

Gear for New Zealand - Electronics

Because the NZ trip was kind of a big deal, I decided that we should make some gear investments to make this trip successful and well-documented.

My 15" MacBook Pro has held up pretty well since before B was born. But it is rather large and has poor battery life these days. I decided not to bring it at all. Hilary's 13" white MacBook is nearly as old, but is creekier. She was due for an upgrade. She'd had her eye on a zippy and svelte MacBook Air as a replacement. This, I deemed, we would buy beforehand and use as our primary machine on the road. By getting an Apple refurb, I was able to get a top-of-the-line model for basically the same price as the custom-spec model I was configuring.

Being brand new, and lacking any moving parts (no optical drive, flash instead of a spinning HDD), its battery life is stellar. This is a good thing, since we were only able to recharge it in the campervan when we were plugged into "shore power". We managed to travel from LA through Day 2, though, on less than half a charge.

On the road, the machine contained all of Hilary's immense trip-planning research and references. It also served as the repository for our many pictures and video (with the originals kept on the SD cards). It is also from this machine that we did our blogging on.

We also brought our iPad, thinking that it could be a secondary computing device. We even went so far as to bring a bluetooth keyboard for it. In the end, the iPad was used mostly for B to watch the occasional movie on the road (The Incredibles was her favorite). We did also use it for some internet stuff.

Hilary and I brought our respective iPhones, unlocked, and purchased pre-paid plans through Telekom NZ. The kiosk at the airport was fast and efficient, and had us set up in about 10 minutes. For about $17, we each had a modest allowance of local minutes and texts, plus 500 MB of cellular data. Although there were WiFi hotspots here and there, we found them to often be congested and slow, so we would often use the cellular data to connect. Because NZ has genuine competition (perish the thought!), we could use our phones as mobile hotspots, meaning that we could use them to provide internet connectivity to the MacBook Air or iPad.

As a result, we burned through the data pretty quick. We re-upped another 500 MB apiece, then some more, and some more. In the end, I think we used something close to 6 GB of data. But, again, because NZ has genuine competition, the cost was quite modest - easily half of what you'd expect in the States. Getting our phones back on their domestic networks when we returned stateside was easy-peasy.

We also purchased an additional plan for H that gave her 100 international minutes and texts. With it we were, for instance, able to call my mother to wish her a happy birthday from halfway across the world. Figuring out the correct time and day for the call was surprisingly challenging. The ability to have a handheld device and casually call up someone so far away still blows my mind. (we tried both Skype and iChat for the birthday wishes, but ran into technical difficulties.) Hilary and B also called me once I was back stateside.

Still Camera
Our family's still camera had for many years (since well before Brynna) been a very pocketable, 8-MP, Canon point-and-shoot. Somewhere in the last few years it received a few too many knocks (probably from small fingers fumbling it) that has made it so that it cannot hold the whole frame in focus. For this trip, an upgrade was called for.

I thought about a DSLR or micro four-thirds for top image quality. However, I know enough about my own photog abilities and how we would actually use the camera to know that this wasn't the way to go. My fear was that a big camera would become a camera unused - a heavy burden rather than an oft-used convenience.

Rather than let our iPhones become how we document this trip, I decided a good-but-not-unwieldy point-and-shoot would be the way to go. My requirements were:

  1. good image quality (through a combination of large sensor and good glass, megapixels are largely irrelevant),
  2. small enough to pocket (again, if it's too big, it won't get used),
  3. fast and responsive UI (shuttle lag sucks!),
  4. Manual controls, because even though I'm not really a photographer, I don't always want what the automatic modes produce
  5. 1080p60 video capture, preferrably not in some obscure codec. (I didn't do any video editing on the roadI don't think I'll be doing a lot of video editing on the road (it takes time), but eventually I'll put some stuff up)

I came very close to getting a Sony RX100 II, which most everyone agrees is the very best compact point-and-shoot on the market at the moment. Its image sensor is enormous - comparable to what you'd find in an entry-level DSLR, and it's combined with "fast" glass. These combine for excellent light gathering ability, which is the first key step for image quality.

I went to an actual brick-and-mortar photography store and handled one. It's nice, and its bona fides are not in question. But it is about $250-300 more than its competitors. Its fold-out screen was nice, but I feared it would be snapped off easily. Compared to the camera it is replacing, this thing is huge (3-4x the volume) - it would sit heavily in a pants pocket. I was not particularly sold on the manual controls, either. Other functions, like the ability to add a hot shoe, would be like owning a car that can do 150 mph but is only ever used for highway driving. In short, I worried that this particular camera would become an expensive bauble that is rarely used on the fly.

Instead, I settled on an open-box Canon S120. Being from Canon, it shares some of the UI of the camera it replaces. The clicky ring around the lens barrel can be used for various manual, DSLR-like functions. The built-in WiFi may or may not be useful (I downloaded the iOS remote app, but didn't use it at all on the road). Although it is physically larger than the camera it replaces, it is not such a lug as the RX100 II. Plus, was a few hundred dollars less expensive.

To my great relief, I have been most satisfied with this purchase - no pangs of buyer's remorse. The automatic features produce great results (as you have seen), whether I the engineer or H the non-techie is behind the lens. It feels a bit large when in a pants pocket, but not uncomfortably so. Most of the trip it resided in a pouch on my belt. I enjoyed tinkering with the manual controls. Some of the built-in scene modes have been useful - the stellar example being capturing glowworms in a cave or the awesome night sky by using the tripod-mounted, long exposure, star capture mode.

With this camera I purchased a high-quality 32-GB SD card for storing the images. It returned to the U.S. with less than 2 GB free, indicating that, yes, we did indeed use it!

(given the relatively low cost of the replacing the card, and the very high value of these pictures, I'm going to put this card in a safe place and just buy a new one for the camera going forward. This is in addition to having pictures on Hilary's computer, some on my computer, and both backed up.)

Video Camera
New Zealand is a place of wild sports - places not to trust a point-and-shoot. We didn't do bungee jumping, but there was paragliding, swimming, and waterfalls to contend with. Knowing this, I decided to also spring for an action camera. In this product category the clear favorite is the GoPro. This small, rugged camera in a waterproof case gets lots of use by surfers, kayakers, skydivers, extreme skiiers, and all manner of other crazies. Check out some of their videos on youtube - it's great stuff.

Still, it's a pricey piece of kit that may or may not have gotten a whole lot of use. New, at retail, I would have gotten the Hero3+ Silver Edition, because it's around the price point I could justify ($299) and captures at 1080p60. However, I had heard some mixed reviews online about changes to the lens in the 3+ versus its predecessor, the Hero3. Perhaps something on the used market would be a better fit. Craigslist comes through again! For $350 I purchased a lightly used Hero3 Black Edition, last year's top-of-the-line model, with a whole boatload of accessories and a 64 GB card, from a guy in Massachusetts. It arrived two days before we left, so I didn't have a whole heck of a lot of time to figure out how to use it until we arrived in-country.

In New Zealand, once I figured out how to work the thing, I used it a bit here and there. I used it to get video swimming up to and behind a waterfall, of B having a blast on a zipline, timeline shots of twisty roads near Cape Reinga, glissading down the scree slope of a volcano, traveling by ferry to the South Island, leaping into an icy river, fog rolling on the Franz Josef glacier, all alone on Key Summit, going under Stirling Falls, and clouds cascading over a ridge at Aoraki National Park. Due to bandwidth constraints, I didn't upload any video while we were on our trip. It's still on the to-do list for the near future.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

10 years, 100,000 miles

During my first year of grad school at Dartmouth, Hilary was doing a year of post-baccalaureat studies and MCAT preparation in Massachusetts. We saw each other most weekends, becoming very familiar with I-91 up and down the Connecticut river valley. For a time, Hilary had to come north to see me, because I had no wheels of my own (Greyhound, the alternative, was occasionally used, but inconvenient).

Around christmas break at the end of 2003, I was ready to buy a car to fix that problem. I even had one lined up - a Honda Civic HX (the one with the funky CVT) from one of the business school students. Unable to get my bank to grant me an auto loan (they claimed I had no income; I did have a meager grad student stipend), I scrounged and borrowed money from friends and family. Then, abruptly and for no particular reason I can recall, the guy called the deal off just after New Year's. Frustrated and dejected, I spent some time moping while Hilary - ever more practical - looked through the classifieds. Down in White River Jcn she found a good candidate: an off-lease 2001 VW Jetta with under 30,000 miles. The dealer - a used car broker called Jasmine Auto - was planning to tidy it up and sell to another, big lot used car dealer. I got there first and got the price they would have charged the dealer. Such a deal. I also got fixed up with financing through a bank in Portsmouth.

Best $8500 I've ever spent. This spring marks 10 years and just about 100,000 miles later. More, if you count the miles it spent being hauled to Minnesota (2005) and back (2009). It's getting a little creaky, but still runs well. It's had this funny quirk for years now where it doesn't recognize the opening and closing of the driver's door. On bumpy roads this can manifest itself as the car suddenly starting to beep - thinking the door is open with the keys in the ignition - which requires a quick actual opening and quick slamming shut. There are a smattering of spots on the roof, hood, and trunk where the paint is gone and rust is starting to show. Those got their start in 2005 when my parking spot was under some tall pine trees that dropped globs of sap. And let us not forget the passenger side-view mirror: practically ripped off when I backed a little too close to my roommate's 1990s Buick. It's been held on with electrical tape and bailing wire ever since.

So here's to that fine piece of German engineering. Given that Hilary's station wagon is unlikely to survive its next state inspection, let's hope the Jetta lasts for a few years yet!

Prelude to being buried in a blizzard in Duluth. Winter, 2007.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

New Zealand Day 43 (?): Home

The best part of a voyage - by plane,
by ship,
or train -
Is when the trip is over and you are
Home again.