Friday, March 28, 2014

Kumho ECSTA 716 HP4 - Civilized and Inexpensive High Performance Tire

In 2002, I replaced the tires that my Mitsubishi Galant ES came with (195/65HR15 Goodyear Eagle LS) with Kumho Ecsta 716 HP4 in size 205/60HR15. The tires were $53 apiece from Discount Tire Co./America’s Tire Co. including mounting, balancing and valve stems.

Additionally I paid $1 per tire in environmental fees, $2 per tire for disposal of the old tires and bought road hazard warranty. The total was $279 for four tires (mounted, balanced) with free lifetime balancing and rotation and road hazard warranty/insurance. Amazingly, the tire change process took only 15 minutes.

Some Specs 

The Kumho Ecta 716 HP4 tires that I got are speed-rated H (up to 130 mph) and carry 50,000-mile treadwear warranty. They have initial tread depth of 10/32" and maximum inflation pressure of 35 psi (I used 31-34 psi in front and 29-32 psi in the rear).

Choosing The Tire 

I wanted an inexpensive tire that would have good traction and low noise, good ride comfort and good treadwear. Unfortunately, the majority of tires sold in Sam’s Club, Tire Pros, Pep Boys, etc. are expensive and either wear out quickly or don’t have good grip. Some chains sell tires that you cannot get information on because they have their own names (Pep Boys).

Touring tires like Michelin MXV4 and MXV4 Plus cost $100+ a tire and are not that great in terms of grip or treadwear, the Goodyear Eagle LS is costly too and squeals in turns and wears fast. I realized I shouldn't look for “touring” tires, but rather for high-performance ones.

Well, I am happy to report I found what I wanted. The Kumho 716 seems to be a very good choice in all respects.

Handling, Comfort and Noise 

The Ecsta 716 is considered by Kumho to be a high performance all-season tire, which means it should have better grip/handling than that of the touring tires but possibly less comfort and more noise.

The fact that my new tires grip much better and handle better is no surprise. Even though the width increased by 10 mm (from 195 to 205), the grip level is definitely much better than Goodyear Eagle LS – more than the simple size increase would give.

The Kumhos don't squeal in turns the way the Goodyears used to and grip much better. The sidewall height is about the same, yet they seem to be much stiffer than Eagle LS's and give better steering response.

The surprising part is the fact that they also seem to be less noisy than Goodyears and "feel softer". In other words, the ride and noise level is better even though the performance also increased.


The Ecsta 716 carries 50,000-mile treadwear warranty (OEM Goodyear Eagle LS carry no treadwear warranty).

In July of 2006: I have sold the car with these tires having 46,000 miles and they still had at least 4/32" left. This is after occasional driving in the mountains on twisty roads as well as city/freeway combined driving. They were not handled particularly carefully. But I rotated them every 7K or so. I expected them to last 50-55K overall.

The ride and noise got somewhat worse at 45,000-mile mark, but were still bearable. The wet traction has not decreased enough to warrant replacement. The dry traction increased significantly: with 4/32" of tread left the tires developed amazing grip in turns. The more they wore, the better they gripped (probably due to the tread getting less flexible due to decrease of its height).


Here, in LA area, it doesn't rain often, however when it does rain, the Kumhos provided excellent stopping power and were much better than Goodyear Eagle LS, which were losing traction in the wet easily and unpredictably, especially when they had more than 25,000 miles on them. I have never hydroplaned with the Kumho HP4, unlike the Goodyear Eagle LS.


The tread looks good, but the sidewall is a little too simple-looking. The Kumho's K-band sidewall looks somewhat cheap.

Pros: Low price, great value, warranty, performance/handling/grip, low noise, good ride
Cons: Sidewall could look better


The Kumho 716 HP4 was an excellent tire at a great price. Not only did it perform great and was civilized, but it also carries 50,000-mile treadwear warranty. These tires lasted me over 45K (until I sold the car) and performed very well throughout.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sony DVP-NS710H/B DVD Player - 1080p upconversion, HDMI and MP3

Although my current DVD players of choice a recent Pioneer models, I checked out Sony DVP-NS710H/B upconverting DVD player. I was recently impressed with the Pioneer DV-220V-K and Pioneer DV-420V-K. The Sony NS710 is a solid performer overall, but I tend to prefer the aforementioned Pioneers. See below why.

Despite the advent of the Blu-Ray, regular DVDs are plentiful, inexpensive to buy and to rent and the current crop of upconverting DVD players makes them (arguably) look close to Blu-Ray and definitely much better than older non-upconverting non-HDMI DVD players. After being a Panasonic DVD player fan for a long time, I discovered Pioneer DVD players. Panasonic DVD players are still good, but they were getting more and more cheaply-made and their performance didn't seem to improve much. In fact, they regressed in some areas, e.g. responsiveness.

Panasonic players were also only semi- reliable. I saw "semi-" because I had at least two of them expire with a drive motor failure. Granted they were in severe use for over 3 years each, but still, when you shell out decent bucks (Panasonic DVD players were never exactly cheap) you expect the product to last.

In light of the above and for DivX, MPEG/AVI, PAL, etc. playback I first switched to Philips players. They were pretty inexpensive and played the aforementioned formats well. The picture quality was also beyond reproach. But their ergonomics, menus, displays, remote controls were not exactly pleasing. And although they were improving in areas of ergonomics and remote control, they were getting a bit flimsy for my taste.

Then I discovered Pioneer DVD players. I have used the Pioneer DV-400V, the Pioneer DV-410V, the Pioneer Elite DV-48AV (which I currently use for DVD-Audio playback among other things) and the Pioneer DV-420V-K. To stay unbiased, I also tried out the Philips DVP5982, 5960 and DVP5990 (which my mother is currently using). Although Pioneer players are somewhat more expensive, it is easy to see why.

Philips DVD players still have some usability shortcomings and appear just a little bit flimsy. At the same time, both the DV-400V and the DV-48AV were much better in some aspects than the contemporary Philips models. From there on, the trend continued. My current DVD-Audio/Video player is Pioneer Elite DV-48AV.

I am still using Philips DVP5990 that my mother has and it is more than satisfactory overall. It produces amazingly good picture and has a decent remote, but is just a little flimsy still. Having cool features of Philips players without ergonomics shortcomings or slight flimsiness thereof, Pioneer models are my current players of choice.

The Sony NS710 is an inexpensive model from Sony that features an HDMI out, upconversion to up to 1080p and the usual goodies like MP3 playback. When I say "inexpensive" I mean by Sony's standards. Slightly over $60 is not expensive overall, but buys a lot of a DVD player these days. Witness the Pioneer DV-220V-K, the model that has a USB and DivX certification (something Sony doesn't have).


The Sony DVP-NS710H/S is a upconverting DVD player with 720p, 1080i or 1080p output over HDMI. It can display JPEG photos, play MP3 files, CD-R and CD-RW, DVD-R/W, DVD R/W. The player has an HDMI out, coaxial digital audio out, component video out and a composite audio out.

It is immediately apparent that there are some items that the player lacks. There is no S-Video out (nobody would use it anyway if they have HDMI or component input on their TV) or an optical digital audio out (coaxial is present plus HDMI-equipped receivers are nothing new).

The front panel is Spartan, with only eject, play and stop buttons. The buttons are flush with the surface, making for a poor tactile feedback.


The player is medium-sized and nice in appearance. Its display that is not very informative. The onscreen displays are very pleasing however. The player came preset to widescreen mode and produced high contrast and sharpness by default, requiring adjustments to dial it all down.


The player is a bit slow loading discs. But while trying out different DVD discs, the multiple-disc resume functionality came in handy. The feature works pretty seamlessly.

Remote Control 

The remote is compact and has separate power and volume buttons to control your TV. The buttons are located in somewhat intuitive order, but are mostly similarly-sized.

Picture Quality 

I tested the player with my 50-inch Hitachi plasma (P50H401). The 1080i output over HDMI is very good: razor sharp and clear. It does not quite have the smallest detail of the HD DVD or Blu-Ray, but it is rather good and definitely better than that of the non-upconverting player over an analog connection. I do feel that my mother's Philips DVP5990 produces a marginally better level of detail.

I definitely have not expected it to rival an HD DVD disc in my Toshiba HD-A3 or a Blu-Ray disc in my Sherwood Blu-Ray player, I was quite happy with the image quality. Still, I tried a comparison with the upconversion of regular DVDs by my Toshiba HD-A3 and the A3 does have a distinctive advantage in detail level.

The sound is excellent as well (using either coaxial digital connection or HDMI to my Panasonic XR57 receiver).

Now, there are deficiencies that are only noticeable if you want a seamless computer file sharing/playback. There is no USB port or DivX certification(Pioneer DV-220V-K has both for about the same price). The front panel does not have many buttons and the front panel display will not win any contests.

Then there is a question of reliability. I am trying to be objective, but in my experience with Sony products, quality control was lacking pretty frequently and design flaws also apparent. This applied to a camcorder that had a scroll wheel that started malfunctioning within two years after purchase (and still does), computer monitor that came from the factory with a huge gap between plastic panels, a brand-new VCR that couldn't obtain correct tracking on tapes that pretty much all other VCRs had no issues with.

In any case, we cannot make conclusions about reliability of this model based on past experiences with the company. Plus, the price is so low you can always get a new (probably better and cheaper) model later if this one fails. Still, for my money I am sticking with Pioneer.


Good looks, price (for a Sony product) connectivity options, features, 1080p, very good video and sound.


Slightly long startup time, no USB or DivX certification.


The compact Pioneer DV-220V-K costs about the same (if not less) and has USB and solid Avi/DivX playback. If you want a full-sized DVD player (for stack-ability with other components) that also has more controls on the front panel (including menu control buttons and DVD/USB switch button) and an S-Video out, I recommend the Pioneer DV-420V-K. Other alternatives include the Philips DVP5990 or DVP5992. They are solid DVD players with very similar features and excellent image quality.

Bottom Line 

The Sony DVP-NS710H/B is a good and inexpensive upconverting DVD player with HDMI. If you have to have a Sony DVD player and/or don't need a USB port or an optical digital audio out, I recommend it. Otherwise, see the Pioneer DV-220V-K, Pioneer DV-420V-K, Philips DVP5990 or DVP5992.

Latte Communications Espresso MP3 / Digital Media Player with 3-inch Touchscreen

I have recently received the new Latte Espresso MP3 player from the manufacturer (Latte Communications, a Silicon Valley-based company) and it makes me realize just how dated my iPod Nano has become in a few short years I have owned it. It is no secret that the price and feature set of MP3 players constantly keep improving. And "MP3 player" is somewhat of a misnomer since those newer devices can do so much more. The Latte Espresso is definitely much more than an MP3 player.

I have used quite a few MP3 players, from the unappealing but functional Philips HDD077 to excellent iPods of different generations, including Nano models. I still like iPod Nano, but it is obvious that it has its shortcomings, including the lack of memory expandability, lack of WMA support, audio recording or radio and its high price. And of course, something that is apparent only after using a touchscreen-equipped device, the controls are somewhat clumsy.

Them there is the proprietary connector that iPods use. You cannot charge iPods from just any USB-to-mini-USB cable or a cell phone charger, it does not come with a wall charger and you cannot copy music from just any computer (iTunes software is a requirement). And you need a separate FM transmitter if your car's stereo doesn't have an iPod adaptor or and aux input.

Having used the previous Latte players: the Latte Neon M3, Latte ICE and Latte iVu players, I was expecting good performance and features at an attractive price from the new Latte Espresso. Once I got the new Latte Espresso MP3/WMA/AVI/MPEG player, I charged it for 8 hours and transferred some 7 GB of music to it in a short order.

What is Latte Espresso? 

The Latte Espresso is a portable MP3/WMA/Video player and photo viewer, FM radio, voice recorder, portable drive and an E-book reader. It has a built-in FM transmitter for being able to listen to your tunes through your car's stereo without having to use a cassette adapter or cables. The player has a 3-inch wide-screen touchscreen display with haptic technology (420x240 QVGA). The haptic technology makes the player vibrate when you touch the screen, providing feedback.

The G-sensor rotates the display based on the player's orientation (except for video playback). The player comes with either 8 or 16 GB of built-in memory (depending on the model). It comes with headphones, USB cable and manuals.

The player features a built-in microphone for voice recording. The music can be copied to the player directly over USB with no need to install any software. The same applies to files of any kind when you use the Espresso as a flash drive.

The player plays MP3 and WMA and supports ID3 tags (version 1 and 2). It supports menus in many languages. In addition to MP3 and WMA, it can also play OGG, FLAC, ACC, APE audio formats and AVI, RM, RMVB, WMV, 3GP, MPG, DAT, MP4 and FLV video.

The player also has a FM transceiver. It can both receive FM radio (including functionality to auto-scan, set presets and even record radio shows) and transmit over FM band (for use with car stereos that don't have an aux imput).

The interface is USB 2.0 High speed with speeds of up to 4 MB/s. The battery life is up to 15 hours.

Advantages Over iPod Nano 1st Gen

First, there is the large and colorful 3-inch touchscreen with haptic technology. After using the touchscreen, the iPod's wheel feels dated. It also limits the functionality (but does let you scroll through files faster).

Just as the previous players from Latte, the Espresso has a mini-USB jack (used for charging and data transfer). This means you can use your mini-USB cell phone chargers, if you have one (for example, the one for Motorola RAZR V3 works perfectly).

The music transfer to the player does not require special software: you just connect it using the supplied USB cable and copy MP3/WMA/JPEG/etc. files over. Of course, iPods require iTunes software. The Espresso also plays WMA, which is a file format iPods do not like (but I sometimes do), AAC, OGG, FLAC, ACC and APE.

The Espresso has an FM radio and voice recording with a built-in microphone. It also can vatious video formats and lets you view JPEG photos, BMP and GIF files.

The player supports text reading and has a flexible equalizer, including graphical equalizer function, where you can adjust individual frequency ranges.

The Espresso can play very loud (even with aftermarket headphones of low sensitivity); the display is very clear and its radio has good reception. The voice recorder and e-book reader features are also nice-to-have features.

The built-in FM transmitter is a useful feature too. With an iPod, you have to get a separate accessory and the integration is sometimes not ideal. With Espresso, you just need to have the headphones connected and turn the frequency out on.


The Espresso sounds very good, even with the supplied headphones. Of course, for better sound and an apples-to-apples comparison, I used my usual headphones of choice: Koss KSC-75. Not surprisingly, the sound is detailed, has well-defined bass, mids and treble and the instrument separation is very good (if you use the highest bit rate possible). The sound quality largely depends on the source.

Switching through a few headphones, including my Creative EP-640, Koss KSC-75 and Sennheiser HD202 headphones and discovered that the player provides good amount of bass and overall sound is as good as I have heard from an MP3 player.

Furthermore, unlike iPod Nano that plays just loud enough for medium-grade aftermarket headphones, the Espresso can play very loud. I used its volume at up to 12-17 even with my aftermarket headphones (the music was loud enough then) and it can go 32. Thinking about the numbering scheme makes me recall the movie "Spinal Tap" where the amp could go to "11". Make sure you do not overdo it with volume - your hearing will thank you later.

The radio reception is very good (the headphones have to be connected since the cord serves as an antenna) and the sound is also good. The radio station/frequency display is very legible and uses large lettering. The preset management is clear, although at times I wished I could just store the current radio station as a preset car stereo-style, but pushing and holding the preset button.

Car Use

My Infiniti G35 doesn't have an auxiliary input and an attempt to connect my iPod through its cassette deck (which I never use otherwise) by means of a cassette adaptor was unsuccessful. After my previous attempts at using the Latte iVu, I knew that the headphones have to be attached to the player since the cord serves as an antenna (both for receive and transmit). This is the case with all FM transmitters, including the Espresso.

The sound quality might depend on you car's radio's performance, but since mine is not the best (the reason I rarely listen to music on radio), the sound quality is not nearly as good as playing a CD and the volume was relatively low.


The huge 3-inch screen is very sharp, colorful and is informative. The touchscreen function works rather well. The only area a had slight issues with was the vertical scrollbar. It is pretty narrow in width and you have to use your nail to ensure you "click" it.

The icons are good-looking, the audio playback features a spectrum analyzer, instant bitrate display and more (including the ability to view ID3 tags). All of the above displays are accessible by simply tapping your finger on the specific area of the screen.

The photos look very good and the screen seems just huge comparing to the one on the iPod Nano. The colors are pleasing and backlight is bright (the screen's brightness is adjustable).


Another advantage over iPod is the ability to navigate the directory structure directly. I frequently struggle to find any given song in my iPod Nano's memory because the search is only possible by genre, artist, album, etc. Some of my MP3s have no ID3 tags, some have them in a very non-English language, which does not help.

The Espresso lets you find the song you want to play in its directory tree simply by navigating it. And you can even delete files if you want (but not the directories).

One feature I would like added is the ability to quickly (e.g. 1-click) navigate back to the song that is currently playing. If you are listening to a song and navigate somewhere in the directory tree structure, to get back to the song that is currently playing (even to adjust the volume or pause it), you have to get all the way out of the file browser, go to the music player area and select "current playback" option. Then, you would have to navigate your way back to the place in the directory structure you were browsing.


The built-in battery lasts up to 15 hours, depending on the screen usage, volume and functions used. I normally use it for about 5-6 hours in a row and see no sign of battery depletion, so the battery life is suitable for me. The charging takes about 4-6 hours and it is recommended to charge the player 8 hours first couple of times.

It Is Easy To Use 

The touchscreen with haptic feedback is easy to use and is much more pleasant in this respect than button-based players. The menus and icons are descriptive overall and navigation is rather easy with a few caveats (see above). There is also a small quirk - when the player is in vertical position, the "volume up" button is on the left and "volume down" is on the right.


The player feels solid. It has a stylish body with solid jacks and a power/hold switch requiring reasonable amount of force to operate.

USB Speed 

The player has USB 2.0 High-speed interface, which is definitely an improvement on the previous models'. I measured transfer speed from my computer and it clocked at 3.92 Megabytes per second, which is very impressive.


The G-sensor rotates the display when the player is rotated, so you can use it either horizontally or vertically.

Pros: 3-inch touchscreen, features, looks, playback volume, battery life, performance, FM radio
Cons: When using the FM transmitter, your car's radio limits the sound quality


The Latte Espresso has a lot of features, good performance and is easy to use. Its huge touchscreen, solid playback and a good price make it a very good choice.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS 10-Megapixl Digital Camera with 10x Optical Stabilized Zoom

With 10x optical zoom, the Canon SX120 is almost as small as a compact digital camera. The versatility of 10x zoom makes it much more fun to use comparing to a regular compact digicam. Before digital mega-zoom cameras were available, you would have to carry around a bunch of lenses and a camera body to be able to get to 10x magnification, but now you can get a digital camera with 10x optical zoom in a compact package and for a low price.

Mega-zoom cameras (loosely defined as cameras with 10x or more optical zoom) allow you to zoom in to magnify far-away objects while staying far from them. But not all mega-zoom cameras are created equal. Some cameras have no image stabilization at all (although, thankfully, they are rapidly becoming extinct), resulting in blurry images at high magnification levels and/or in dim light. Some cameras rely on increased sensitivity setting (ISO) to increase the shutter speed thereby reducing blur caused by the shake when the camera is handheld.

And then, at the top of the mega-zoom hierarchy, are cameras with optically-stabilized zooms. These cameras move an optical element within the lens (some shift the CCD sensor itself) to reduce or eliminate blur caused by shooting handheld. The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS is on of these cameras and can claim the best anti-blur technology.

I have used many mega-zoom cameras, including the Panasonic DMC-FZ28, the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS, the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS and many others. Most were full-sized mega-zooms. They had over 15x magnification but were bulky. The Canon SX120 belongs to a group of mega-zooms that are compact, yet reach 10x magnification.

What Is Canon SX120 IS? 

The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS is a digital camera with optical image stabilization, 10x zoom, 10-Megapixel resolution and a 3-inch LCD screen. The camera has face detection and uses SD memory cards for storage (SDHC capable).

The Canon SX120 IS is powered by 2 AA batteries. Its 10x optical zoom and optical image stabilization work together to give you sharp pictures when shooting handheld and/or at long distances. The camera's 10x optical zoom is an equivalent of 36-360mm (film equivalent). Although 36mm is not as wide as I prefer, 360mm telephoto end is pretty impressive for such a compact camera.

The camera features a maximum apertures of f/2.8 at wide angle and f/4.3 at full telephoto. The image storage is on SD cards in JPEG format. In addition to digital still photographs, the camera can record video clips with sound at up to 640x480 30 fps. The connectivity is provided by USB 2.0 interface.


The camera lets you shoot at the resolutions of up to 10 Megapixel, which allows you to print enlargements or crop a part of the picture and print it with excellent sharpness. The 10-Megapixel resolution is more than enough for the standard 6x4 or 5x7 prints.

The camera features selectable ISO between 80, 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1600 as well as Auto and High ISO Auto. The Canon SX120 IS has a very bright autofocus-assist light for better and faster focusing in low-light conditions. It works well in dim light and allows the camera to focus very fast.

The camera also features manual focusing mode with magnification, but it is not something that is needed frequently (if at all), since the automatic focusing works so well. The power is supplied by 2 AA batteries (rechargeable batteries of high capacity are best).

The camera has exposure compensation of +/- 2 stops in 1/3 stop increments.

Metering and Exposure 

The SX120's light metering can be selected between Evaluative, Center-Weighted and Spot (center or AF point). I find Spot and Center-Weighted modes useful when taking pictures of people at distances where the flash doesn't reach in backlight. In Evaluative metering mode, the faces might turn out underexposed, unless you dial some exposure compensation.

In Spot mode, you can set metering to properly expose the face of your subject. Also, the Spot metering mode can help you figure out the proper exposure in difficult lighting conditions be metering off the object with known tonal characteristics and then dialing some exposure compensation.

The camera's exposure modes include Program AE, Aperture and Shutter Priority mode, and even full Manual mode. The shutter speed can be set between 15 and 1/2,500 sec with speeds slower than 1.3 sec available in Shutter Priority or Manual mode and operating with noise reduction.

The Program AE modes let you avoid figuring out the details and the full auto mode turns the operation into fully-automatic point-and-shoot. You only need to point the camera where you want and push the shutter release button. The camera will take care of all the rest.


The SX120 IS has an excellent Macro mode, which lets you get very close to your subject. It also has manual focusing, which, in conjunction to available manual exposure, makes it a very versatile camera. As I mentioned before, the automatic focusing works very well, which mitigates the need to use manual focusing in virtually all situations.

Movie Mode 

The camera can record AVI movie clips at up to 640x480 pixels at 30 or 15 fps with sound. 320x240 resolution is also available.


The Canon SX120 IS has a 3-inch LCD with good 230,000 pixels with 100% coverage. There is no viewfinder. The LCD is fluid, has pleasing colors and good resolution. It is fluid, even in low light. I found that the LCD is well-visible in regular conditions, but in sunlight, visibility decreases and the lack of viewfinder manifests itself.


A quick suggestion on maximizing battery life: turn off its continuous focus and continuous image stabilization, both of which are battery hogs. If you disable both of them (and switch to focusing and OIS only after the shutter release button is depressed), the battery life improves somewhat.

Unlike the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS, or Fuji S6000fd, which use 4 AA batteries or other cameras (e.g. Panasonic DMC-FZ28) which use proprietary Li-Ion battery packs, the Canon SX120 IS uses 2 AA batteries. Canon includes 2 alkaline batteries with the camera, but obviously you have to get your own rechargeable batteries, preferably NiMH of high capacity and a charger. The alkaline batteries that are included don't last long and cannot be recharged. Using disposable AA batteries is bad for environment and your wallet. I have used my Rayovac 2300 mAh NiMH batteries.

I dislike cameras that don't come with rechargeable batteries (unless they are inexpensive) and here is why. Usually, cameras that use 2 AA batteries are slow in recharging their flashes. After you take one photo with flash, you have to wait until the flash recharges to take another. And the wait with 2 AA batteries is usually much longer than with 4 AA batteries or a custom Li-Ion battery pack.

Cameras that use 4 AA batteries are bulky and heavy once batteries are loaded, plus it is cumbersome to remove and reinsert four of them. With 4 AA batteries, the additional disadvantage is the price of batteries and the charger, the weight and inconvenience of having to deal with 4 batteries instead of one.

I am willing to give a camera a chance if it is very good in other respects, however. The advantage of using AA batteries is the ease of finding replacement rechargeable or disposable batteries. As mentioned above, the 2-AA battery cameras have issues flash recycle time. Just as I suspected, the Canon SX120 IS proved this simple truth once more as its flash took up to 12 seconds to recycle.


The SX120 provides up to 10 Megapixels of resolution, which lets you produce excellent prints up to 10x8 inches (and even larger), provided the lighting is good. There are lower resolutions to choose from in the menu, but with inexpensive memory cards, why bother?


The SX120  is well built and has a solid feel. It  is relatively convenient to hold. Upon arrival, I loaded my two 2300 mAh Rayovac NiMH batteries, inserted my 512 MB SD card and was ready to shoot.

In comparison to some other mega-zoom cameras, a positive difference of the SX120 is the absence of the lens cap that needs to be removed manually. The camera uses lens doors that open automatically, which is nice.

In the Box 

The camera comes with 2 AA-sized alkaline disposable batteries, a wrist strap, an AV cable, USB cable, a "starter" 128-Megabyte SD memory card and a CD-ROM with manuals and software.


The camera's operation is very fast. The power-up takes less than 2 seconds (mostly taken by the lens extension) and is relatively quiet. The camera focuses very fast as well (under a second), seemingly as fast as the Panasonic FZ28 or Canon SX20 IS.

The zooming is precise and fast. The shutter lag when pre-focused is virtually absent and the picture is taken almost instantaneously. The shot-to-shot delay is a bit more than one second. In high-speed shooting modes, the images were captured at about 1-1.5 fps.

The flash is raised or lowered manually and has an adjustable output, It has red-eye reduction modes, which still don't eliminate the red-eye completely. There is also a red-eye removal option in playback mode.

Shooting with flash is slower since the flash needs time to recharge. Not surprisingly (taking into account only 2 AA batteries) the flash recycle time can reach 12 seconds (shooting in dim light at smallest aperture opening with a subject far away).


The camera focuses fast, even in dim light and even at full telephoto. It had no issues in any kind of light indoors.

Battery Life 

The image stabilization has several modes: Off, Continuous, Shoot Only, Panning. The Continuous mode is a battery hog, so I suggest that you do not use it. I haven't used the continuous image stabilization as it reduces battery life and, more importantly, produces slightly more motion blur in images in comparison to the image stabilization during the shutter release only.

I was took more than 170 pictures without seeing the low-battery warning. Canon specifies that the camera can take up to 130 shots using alkaline disposable batteries and 370 shots using rechargeable NiMH batteries. The corresponding playback times are 7 and 9 hours respectively.

Ease of Use 

Once you get used to Canon menu systems, they are pretty easy to use. Overall, the ease of use is very high and almost reaches my all-time favorite (Panasonic).

Computer Connectivity 

The USB 2.0 on this Canon is a "real deal". It is USB 2.0 High Speed  (unlike some cameras that used to have USB 2.0 Full Speed, which stood for "USB 1.0-speed"). The transfer speeds are fast. I mostly used my memory card reader however, just as always. It is faster, more convenient and conserves the batteries of the camera.

Face Detection 

Just as many other recent cameras, this model features face detection technology. The face detection works surprisingly well, finding faces in the frame, showing you that it found them by displaying focusing rectangles over them, focusing on them and making sure they are properly exposed as well.

Picture Quality 

There is a reason Canon is the leader in consumer digital cameras. When friends ask me for camera recommendations without being able to specify the exact usage criteria, I catch myself thinking about (and frequently recommending) Canon cameras. One of the reasons is the fact that all Canon cameras (with a small exception) are very good or excellent. Other manufacturers have better (in my opinion) cameras in some specific areas. But as far as the overall lineup goes, Canon cannot be beat. They dominate the marketplace as the result.

Canon cameras feature somewhat uniformly excellent picture quality. True, some of them (e.g. small SD-series cameras) have slightly blurry corners. But overall, Canon cameras have uniformly excellent colors, good sharpness and produce images that look good printed.

The Canon SX120 IS produces very good pictures. They are richly saturated, sharp (in the center) from wide angle to telephoto and have pleasing colors. I really like the sky colors and the way the camera renders clouds. The corners are slightly soft though, especially at wide angle.

The chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is apparent in areas of high contrast at both wide angle and telephoto, mostly in corners of the frame.

The image stabilization works well and lets me take handheld photos at full telephoto at 1/100 and sometimes at slower speeds. I also could take handheld photos at 1/10 (and slower) at wide angle. This is much better than the rule of the recommended handheld shutter speeds (1/equivalent focal length) suggests. Without image stabilization I wouldn't be able to take pictures at the above shutter speeds. 1/500 at telephoto and 1/50 at wide angle would be the slowest I could use.

I mostly used the lowest ISO available (ISO 80) and saw no image noise. At higher ISO settings, the noise starts to appear. At ISO 200, you can see noise appear in the shadows/darker areas and ISO 400 has quite detectable noise, the ISO 800 features even worse noise, which becomes rather bad and the detail level suffers too. Fortunately, you can avoid having to use it in most situations by simply using a slower shutter speed and/or larger apertures (e.g. F2.8 at wide angle). Image stabilization lets you use those slower speeds handheld without fear of motion blur appearing on your pictures.

But if you have to use a faster shutter speed, then you have to use ISO 400-1,600. Surprisingly, the noise at ISO 800 is not as bad as I expected and ISO 800 photos can be printed at 5x7 or 4x6. You can print ISO 1,600 pictures, but I would only recommend it in situations where you have no other choice and only at the smaller sizes (e.g. 6x4).

The ISO 800 or higher will not let you print sharp 10x8 photos; they will be grainy. So if you need to print photos larger than 5x7, use ISO lower than 800. And obviously, the lower the ISO, the better is the detail level.

And a note on the flash: not only it takes forever to recycle, the flash has only moderate reach and uneven coverage at wide angle.


The camera came with a 1-year warranty.

Pros: High resolution, low price for features, good performance, image stabilization, 10x zoom
Cons: Slow flash recycle, slightly soft corners, no viewfinder

Bottom Line 

The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS is an excellent choice if you need an inexpensive and compact camera with 10x optical zoom and optical image stabilization. But if you plan to use it in dim light with flash a lot, plan to be patient as the flash recharges slowly.

Pineapple Rumble K Bone Conduction Headphone with Sonic-Vibe EX

I have received the new Pineapple Rumble K Bone Conduction Headphones as well as the water-proof Rumble KW model from the manufacturer (Pineapple Electronics). The Rumble K is a new model, which follows the previous models with the same bone transmission technology: Rumble X and Rumble Z.

Virtually all headphones work using air conduction, that is by creating sound waves that spread through the air and hit your ear drum. If the volume is too high, the hearing damage can occur. The Rumble K (as well as other Pineapple Electronics' headphones) feature bone conduction. In Rumble K, the mid and high frequencies (treble) are produced and transmitted using air conduction, but the bass and mid frequencies are produced in a separate BCT unit and are being transmitted through the skin and bones directly to the middle ear. Not only does this potentially reduce hearing damage from playing music too loud, it also creates a different sensation, most beneficial when playing computer games, watching movies and playing bass-heavy music.

I usually employ inexpensive headphones. My "collection" includes models such as Sennheiser HD201, Sennheiser HD202, Koss KSC75, Koss SparkPlug, Philips HS500, Creative EP-640, etc. Being completely new to the bone-conducting headphones, I was intrigued. After a nonstop 45-hour burn-in in my iPod connected to the AC jack with a power adaptor, I was ready to test the Pineapple Rumble K.

About Pineapple Rumble K

The Pineapple Rumble K is an in-ear headphone with a Bone Conduction Transducer for bass and midrange combined with a conventional mid and treble Air Conduction speaker. The BCT unit is rather large and rests on the outside of the ear canal, while the ear bud is in the ear canal. The hybrid silicone rubber ear buds provide a secure fit and good sound insulation. The lack of ports in the back of the headphone further contributes to sound insulation.

The headphone comes with three sizes of ear buds (medium pre-installed on the headphone, large and small supplied in the box). The headphones are black, look stylish and have replaceable ear pads (see above). The fit, finish and build quality are great.

Some specs from the box: 20-20,000 Hz frequency response, impedance of 7 Ohms, rated power of 5-12 mW, 55-inch unbalanced cord with a 3.5-mm gold-plated plug for use with portable gear. A leather carrying pouch is included.


Relatively large and hefty, the Rumble K has ear buds that are located at an angle to the BCT (bone conduction transducer) unit. I used the silicone ear buds that the headphone came pre-attached with (medium size). The good sound insulation and comfortable fit were immediately apparent.

I have played a variety of music through them, including classical, Euro-dance, pop, rock, electronic music, rap, audio books. I also listened to movie soundtracks. I used my iPod, a CD player and a laptop. For comparison purposes, I also alternated between the Rumble K, the Koss KSC75 and Creative EP-640.

I immediately noticed the low sensitivity of the Rumble K. Vibrating the bone through the skin probably requires some significant energy and I had to crank my iPod up to about 85-95% of its maximum volume, whereas I normally use 65-80% with my other headphones. The portable CD player I used at times required 100% of the volume (depending on material).

The headphone sounded warm, featured good bass, midrange and lower treble, but limited upper treble. It sounded open, even though it is technically a sealed in-ear design. The Rumble K did not struggle with complex music. But the frequency response is a bit uneven and that made me hear some instruments in my classical music recordings I haven't heard before, but also mildly suppressed some others.

The sound overall was somewhat similar to being at a rock concert or in a club. The Rumble K worked very well with rap, producing excellent bass that was not only heard but felt as well. And I could crank it up without fear for my hearing, which is a definite plus. I had to use my Panasonic SA-XR57 receiver's headphone out for that though, since my portable CD player couldn't play very loud with the Rumble K.

The movie playback was excellent. The excellent bass combined with bone conduction produced an almost 3-D effect. Explosions and car chase scenes were the best ways to experience the new technology.

While alternating between the Rumble K, the Koss KSC75 and Creative EP-640, I noticed that I preferred the Rumble K when watching movies and sometimes for listening to rap. For general music listening at lower volumes though, I prefer the Koss KSC75 (over the ear) and the Creative EP-640 (in-ear design). But if I listened to loud music with a lot of bass, or while being on an airplane, the Rumble K would work very well because of its good insulation, powerful bass and vibrating BCT. Reduced chance of the hearing damage is also appealing. Lots of bass with low ear drum pressure via the patented Sonic-Vibe EX technology cannot be beat in this application.

The Pineapple Rumble K comes with an impressive 10-year warranty. They are well-made and should be durable.

Pros: Lowers the chance of hearing damage, powerful bass and vibrations, good for movies/games/rap
Cons: Uneven frequency response and treble

Bottom Line

The bone-conducting Pineapple Rumble K provides powerful loud bass while reducing the chance of hearing loss. It is ideal for watching movies, listening to rap or for listening to movies/music while traveling by plane. It might also be a great investment if you already have some hearing loss.

Pineapple Rumble KW Bone Conduction 100% Water Proof Headphone with Sonic-Vibe EX

I have received the new Pineapple Rumble KW 100% Water Proof Bone Conduction Headphones as well as the Pineapple Rumble K model from the manufacturer (Pineapple Electronics of California) for the purpose of reviewing them. The water-proof Rumble KW is a new model, which follows in the footsteps of the previous models that use the same Sonic-Vibe EX bone transmission technology: Pineapple Rumble X and Pineapple Rumble Z (featuring 3D motion sound and bone transmission sound).

The vast majority of all headphones work using air conduction. In other words, they create sound waves that spread through the air and hit you're the listener's drum, causing it to vibrate. If the volume is too high (causing high pressure and therefore high ear drum vibration amplitude) for too long, the hearing damage can occur.

The Pineapple Rumble KW (as well as other Pineapple Electronics' headphones) feature patented Sonic-Vibe EX bone conduction technology to prevent the hearing loss. In Rumble KW, the mid and high frequencies (treble) are produced and transmitted using air conduction, but the bass and mid frequencies are being transmitted through the skin and bones directly to the middle ear. Not only does this potentially reduce hearing damage from playing music too loud, it also creates a different sensation, most beneficial when playing computer games, watching movies and playing bass-heavy music. The Rumble KW features another, unusual for headphones, feature. The headphone is 100% percent water proof. Now you can take a bath or shower with the headphones on.

I had somewhat of a "collection" of inexpensive headphones that includes models such as Sennheiser HD201, Sennheiser HD202, Koss KSC75, Koss SparkPlug, Philips HS500, Creative EP-640, and some others. I have first tried the Rumble K and then this model. After a nonstop 50-hour burn-in in my iPod connected to the AC jack with a power adaptor, I tried the Pineapple Rumble KW in my living room. No bath or shower tests are planned, but I am sure the KW is usable there. A 10-year warranty is reassuring enough.

What Is Pineapple Rumble KW?

The Pineapple Rumble KW is a 100% water proof in-ear headphone with a Bone Conduction Transducer for bass and midrange combined with a conventional Air Conduction for the treble. The BCT unit is rather large and rests on the outside of the air canal, while the ear bud is placed in the ear canal. The hybrid silicone rubber ear buds provide a secure fit and good sound insulation.

The Rumble KW come with three sizes of replaceable ear buds (medium pre-installed on the headphone, large and small supplied in the box). The headphones look stylish and solidly built.

Some specs from the box: 50-20,000 Hz frequency response, impedance of 7 Ohms +/- 20% at 1 kHz, rated power of 5-12 mW, 25.6-inch +/-20% cord with a 3.5-mm gold-plated plug for use with portable gear. A leather carrying pouch and a 39.4-inch extension cord are included. The Rumble KW is covered by a 10-year warranty.


The solidly-built Rumble KW ships with medium ear buds pre-installed, which is what I used. The BCT (bone conduction transducer) unit is sitting against your ear canal opening and the ear bud is sealing the ear canal even better for excellent sound insulation and comfortable fit.

Just as with the Rumble K, I have played a variety of music through the Rumble KW, including classical, Euro-dance, pop, rock, electronic music and rap. I also listened to movie soundtracks. I used my iPod, a CD player and a laptop as well as my Panasonic SA-XR57 receiver's headphone out. For comparison purposes, I also alternated between this Rumble KW, the over-the-ear Koss KSC75 and the in-ear Creative EP-640 headphones.

Just as with the Rumble K, I noticed the low sensitivity of the Rumble KW. Generating enough vibration to vibrate the bone through the skin probably requires some significant electrical energy and I had to crank my iPod up to about 85-95% of its maximum volume, whereas I normally use 65-80% with my other headphones. The portable CD player I used at times required 100% of the volume (depending recorded volume of the CDs).

The Rumble KW sounded open, even though it is a sealed in-ear headphone. It sounded warm, produced good bass, midrange and lower treble, but somewhat limited upper treble. The Rumble K did not struggle with complex music, but exhibited a somewhat uneven frequency response, suppressing some instruments and accentuating some others. Percussion instruments sounded the best as well as the tuba.

The overall sound was similar to being in a club or at a rock concert. As such, the Rumble KW worked very well with rap, producing excellent bass that was not only heard but also felt. And I could crank up the volume without fear for my hearing, which is a definite plus, especially for someone who already has some hearing damage. For higher volume reproduction I had to use my Panasonic SA-XR57 receiver's headphone jack, since neither my portable CD player nor my iPod could play very loud with the Rumble KW. Which in itself could be a factor in limiting hearing damage.

I also tried the KW with movies, with excellent results. The powerful bass combined with bone conduction produced an almost 3-D effect. Machine gun fire, explosions and car chase scenes were the best ways to experience the bone conduction.

While alternating the headphones between this Pineapple Rumble KW, the Koss KSC75 and the Creative EP-640, I noticed that I preferred the Rumble KW when watching movies and sometimes for listening to rap. I would have probably preferred the KW had I played computer games, but I don't even own any (Nintendo Wii doesn't count!)

However, for general music listening at lower volumes, I prefer the Koss KSC75 (over the ear) overall and the Creative EP-640 (in-ear design) when I need sound insulation. Still, if I listened to loud music with a lot of bass, or had to use headphones while being on an airplane, the Pineapple Rumble KW would work very well because of its good insulation, powerful bass and vibrating BCT.

Reduced chance of the hearing damage is also appealing. Lots of bass with low ear drum pressure via the patented Sonic-Vibe EX technology cannot be beat in this application. Then, there are applications requiring the 100% water proof technology. In the past, I have used headphones I didn't care about damaging when taking a bath and had to be careful about having them stay above water. With the Rumble KW, you can submerge in the water or take a shower while listening to your music. Cool stuff! The Rumble KW comes with an impressive 10-year warranty.

Pros: Water proof, bone-conducting design reduces hearing damage chances, powerful bass
Cons: Uneven treble

Bottom Line 

The Pineapple Rumble KW with its hearing damage-protecting bone transmission technology provides powerful loud bass while reducing the chance of hearing damage. It is ideal for watching movies and playing computer games. It also works well for listening to rap or for listening to movies/music while traveling by plane. If your usage fits the above criteria and/or you already have some hearing damage from loud music I recommend the Pineapple Rumble KW. Just make sure your gear has enough power to drive it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sony NWZ-S639F (NWZS639F) 16 GB Digital Media Player - Better Sound Than Contemporary iPods

I have been using an iPod Nano for a while but wandered whether a better-sounding MP3 player was available. Yes, the Nano even supports lossless audio formats, but I have heard that at least some other makers produce MP3 players that have better sound quality (regardless of the headphones used). Additionally, I wanted a player that was easy to use, had relatively high capacity, long playback time on a battery charge, could be copied files directly to (without the need for iTunes software). A compact size and low price were also preferred.

I discovered that I could get the Sony NWZ-S639F for $90 (pus tax) online. Sony MP3 players are known for their good sound quality, which is better than the iPods'. At the same time, this model was supposed to be stylish and provide good specs: 16GB of memory, 50-hour playback time, music as well as video and photo playback, 2-inch LCD screen and even FM radio. All this in an aluminum case the size of an iPod Nano. And, as I have to mention again, for much less money.

I ordered the S639 along with a silicone case and a screen protector for $3, which, together with tax, came to slightly over $100 (free shipping was nice too). The same deal might be available through this site; either below this review or on the "Compare Prices" tab.

As a side note, the price and feature set of MP3 players keep improving. It is now difficult to characterize newer devices as simply "MP3" players, since they do much more. Since the beginning of my MP3-player phase, I went through quite a few MP3 players, from the lame, but functional Philips HDD077 to excellent iPods of different generations, including Nano models. I still like the iPods, but it cannot be denied that they have their shortcomings, including relatively high price, the lack of WMA support and more.

Since I reside in CA, I have received the player and the silicone case 2 days after ordering them.

What is Sony NWZ-S639F 16GB Digital Media Player? 

The Sony Digital Walkman NWZ-S639F is a portable 16GB Digital Media Player and video/photo viewer, FM radio and a portable drive. The player has a 2-inch LCD display with LED backlight (240x320 QVGA).

The player comes with 16 GB of built-in memory and a Li-Ion battery that ca last up to 50 hours in audio playback mode. It comes with Sony MDR-EX082 headphones (3 different sizes of silicone ear buds are supplied), USB cable, software and manuals.

The player is stylish and features an aluminum case, intuitive control layout, separate volume control buttons and "hold" switch. The music can be copied to the player directly over USB with no need to install any software. The same applies to files of any kind when you use this PMP as a flash drive. You can also use it with Windows Media Player 10 or 11.

The player plays MP3 at 64-320 Kbps and WMA. It also plays lossless WAV (linear PCM), AAC-LC, MPEG4, M4V, JPEG and FM radio.

The interface is USB 2.0 High speed.

Advantages Over iPod Nano 

While being similar in size to the iPod Nano, this digital Walkman is quite different. Aside from the improved sound quality and battery life, which will be described below, it dispenses with a superfluous camera of questionable quality and some semi-useful Nano gimmicks and concentrates on the basics of performance and usability.

Like the iPods, the S639 uses a proprietary connector. But the music transfer to the player does not require special software: you just connect it using the supplied USB cable and copy MP3/WMA/JPEG/etc. files over. Recall that iPods require iTunes software. The supplied CD has Windows Media Player 11, which I already had installed on my laptop. I used it for ripping CDs, some in MP3, some in WMA and some in lossless WAV format and synching to the device. One advantage is the ability to get album and track info from the Internet automatically, including album art. Another is ability to add album art by copy/paste.

The album art appear when you select albums or play tracks on the Walkman, which is pretty cool. Another cool feature is video playback and the device comes preloaded with a few video clips. But sinc I mostly care about music playback, this is of little relevance to me.

The player also plays MP3. WMA (which is a file format iPods do not like, but I sometimes do), WAAV and AAC audio formats.

Ease of Use

Although it lacks the iPods' wheel, the use is intuitive and the controls are solid. The hardware volume control is very handy as well. The colors are vibrant and the screen is bright. I would say the player is as easy to use as virtually any iPod.


I have to mention I was prejudiced against Sony before I started using this player. My experience with Sony's products has not always been top-notch. Unreliability and being overhyped and overpriced were experienced by me firsthand. I still use some of them (example: a Digital8 camcorder), but try to avoid them when I can. This player is different though.

The first thing I noticed after starting to listen to this Walkman (with the same headphones that I usually employ) is that the player sounds excellent, noticeably better than any iPod I have used and better than other MP3 players I used. Even without using its enhancement modes, playing the same material on it as on my iPod Nano (both with equalizers off) I noticed that the sound was more transparent, rich-sounding and clear.

Then, there are sound enhancement modes that actually improve sound. Usually, digital sound processing makes sound different, not better and sometimes worse. This Sony has 4 enhancements (Clear Audio technologies) that actually make low-bitrate music sound better. One of them (Dynamic Normalizer) improves recordings that have poor dynamic range and frequency response combination.

Disclaimer: for an apples-to-apples comparison, I used my usual headphones of choice: Koss KSC-75 with both the Nano and the S639F. This Sony's sound is very detailed, has well-defined bass, mids and treble and the instrument separation is excellent (if you use the highest bit rate possible or, better yet, lossless WAV).

In addition to my Koss KSC-75, I used Sennheiser HD202, Creative EP-640, Zune Premium headphones as well as the supplied headphones (Sony MDR-EX82). The supplied headphones are surprisingly excellent, which is apparent even before the burn-in. They are much better than the ones usually supplied with other MP3 players. I will write a separate review of the supplied headphones shortly (note: the review of Sony MDR-EX082 is now posted here).

I listened to rock, pop and classical music (mostly latter, in lossless linear PCM format). Ernest Bloch's music sounded transparent, detailed and the instrument separation was excellent. Aram Khachaturian's  Violin Concerto in D minor conducted by Aaron Rosand sounded excellent, dynamic and open.

The only slight issue I had was a minor warm coloration, which was barely noticeable. Even with it, the Sony produced the best sound of any digital music player I have used. And you the very good supplied headphones make it a out-of-the-box instant winner in terms of sound quality.

The two custom presets of graphical equalizer allowed me to customize the sound to match the frequency response of different headphones easily, virtualy transforming some of them from semi-decent to very good. The slightly hollow, slightly honky sound of Sennheiser HD202 was virtually cured in this manner, letting the HD 202 reveal its detailed sound and bass capability.

The player can play pretty loud, even with aftermarket headphones.

The radio reception is very good (the headphones have to be connected since the cord serves as an antenna, so you cannot use it as a radio through its built-in speakers with no wires attached) and the sound is also good. The radio station/frequency display is very legible and uses large lettering.


The large 2-inch screen is very sharp, colorful and is informative. The icons are good-looking. The photos look very good (surprisingly for the resolution) and the backlight is bright. The video playback, but with a 2-inch screen I don't expect to watch movies on it.


Another advantage over the iPod is the ability to navigate the directory structure directly. I frequently struggle to find any given song in my iPod Nano's memory because the search is only possible by genre, artist, album, etc. Some of my MP3s have no ID3 tags, some have them in a very non-English language, which does not help.

The Sony lets you find the song you want to play in its directory tree simply by navigating it. Or you can navigate by Artist, Genre, year, etc. There is even a feature that organizes your music by beats per minute.


The battery lasts up to 50 hours, depending on the screen usage, volume and functions used and can be fully charged in 3 hours. Awesome!


The player is compact and rather light, but feels solid. It has a stylish black aluminum body with controls requiring reasonable amount of force to operate.

USB Speed 

The player has USB 2.0 High-speed interface, which is fast..

Pros: Excellent sound, great included headphones, useful sound enhancements, 50-hour battery, 16 GB, great LCD
Cons: No lossless WMA (but lossless WAV)


With sound quality better than most MP3 players, including iPods and low price, large screen, 16-GB capacity and the battery that lasts up to 50 hours in a compact package, the Sony S639F is an excellent choice. It even comes with excellent headphones. I highly recommend it.

Creative Technology EP-630 In-Ear Headphones - Good Sound, Insulation, Durability and Comfort

I must be a compulsive headphone buyer. I have a lot of headphones at home, most inexpensive and not all are being used. Some of the examples in my "collection" includes headphones such as Sennheiser HD201, Sennheiser HD202, Koss KSC75, Koss SparkPlug, Philips HS500, Creative EP-640, Microsoft Zune Premium JDA00001 headphones, Sony MDR-EX082 and a few others.

The headphones I currently use most frequently are the Koss KSC75 (when running or when I need no sound insulation), Zune Premium JDA00001 and Sony MDR-EX082, the latter three are compact, noise-insulating designs.

I already have the Creative EP-640 and use it at times. Recently I bought the Creative EP-630 and found it to be similar. Perhaps you can never have enough headphones. Perhaps I should stop browsing web sites that have headphones.

I have burned the EP-630 in for close to 60 hours, knowing that most headphones do not sound their best until a few dozen hours of burn-in.

What is Creative EP-630?

The Creative EP-630 is a Creative's model of in-ear headphones. They come with a small carrying bag, with three types of ear pads (medium size installed on the headphones, small and large supplied). The EP-630 comes in several colors, including black, pink and others.

The EP-630 look stylish and solidly-built while being compact and light. The asvertising claims are usually bold, assuring that "Powerful 9mm neodymium magnet transducers providing subsonic bass & crystal clear highs" and that "Soft Silicone Earbuds - excellent isolation from ambient noise".

Clear transmission with gold-plated 1.2mm oxygen-free copper cable is also promised. The replaceable silicone pads are of different sizes to fit your ear (I used the ones that the headphones came pre-attached with).

The specifications are impressive: 6-23,000 Hz frequency response, impedance of 16 Ohms.


The EP-630 looks exactly like the EP-640, which is a good thing. It seems to insulate the sound as well as the EP-640, which I used a few times on flights to almost completely insulate myself from the engine noise.

One thing that helps is the absence of ports on the headphones. The ports can improve bass response, but make bass less "tight", reduce overall sound clarity and reduce sound insulation. Covering ports in those headphones produced better sound overall and tighter bass, but much lower bass output. The EP630 doesn't make you deal with these issues. And the lack of ports does not prevent this model from delivering good bass while helping with overall sound quality and noise insulation.

If you need excellent noise insulation, these headphones work extremely well. They are also much more stylish than the Koss Sparkplug and feel more comfortable. The EP-630 has very good bass. The bass is powerful and "tighter" than ported designs mentioned above. The treble quality is excellent and the midrange is very good. The frequency response seems to be very wide, although I doubt it really goes down to 6 Hz at anywhere near +/- 3 or even 6 dB.

The clarity, imaging and definition are very, very good. Electronic music and simple (fewer instruments) classical music (e.g. E. Bloch Piano + Viola only) sounds great.

I also listened to Gogol Bordello and discovered excellent instrument separation in the midbass to midrange, even better than the large enclosed Sennheiser HD-202. The violins sound great also.

The sound is quite warm overall. The small concerns I have are very slightly harsh treble and the bass I with was slightly tighter. Also, there was some congestion in the upper midrange. But these are issues expected at this price range.

The EP-630 have good sensitivity and therefore can play pretty loud with portable gear, especially comparing with some other headphones I have tried. Overall, with excellent noise insulation, these are good headphones to use in a gym or on a train/plane. Since they have very good sound insulation, these are not to be worn on the street where you can get run over just because you don't hear the ambient noises.

For more complex music test, I played Preludes and Overtures of Richard Wagner through my Panasonic SA-XR57 receiver and its headphone jack and compared this model with Koss KSC75 and Sennheiser HD202. The Koss KSC75 had the most open and warn sound as well as good frequency response. The Creative did not sound as open as the other two, but had less hollow sound then the HD202 and better lower-end definition.

Then, I tried the Microsoft Zune Premium Headphone model JDA00001 and the Sony MDR-EX082 and those two had their own strengths (and weaknesses). I liked both better than the EP-630, but the latter wasn't by any means outclassed. In contrast with the Creative, the Zune Premium had more bass and overall better definition. The Sony had more pleasant bottom end and lower midrange, but worse sound insulation.

If I was going on a flight or train, the Creative would be the headphone of choice though, for the following reasons. It provides excellent insulation, is durable, sensitive and compact. And it won't bankrupt you if you manage to break or loose it.

Build Quality

The headphones are well-made and should be durable.

Pros: Price, sound quality, bass, insulation, sensitivity, durability, style, comfort
Cons: Slightly harsh treble

Bottom Line 

The Creative EP-630 headphone sounds very good, can play loud with portable equipment, is durable, stylish and features excellent noise insulation. I highly recommend it for use on a plane, train, in a gym and in other areas where noise insulation and durability, along is important, with no sacrifice in sound quality.

Norpro 151 Meat Grinder, Mincer, and Pasta Maker - A Plasic Meat Grinder?

I was initially reluctant to buy the Norpro Meat Grinder, Mincer and Pasta Maker. My wife wanted a meat grinder and after figuring out that we didn't want to get an electric one (due to cost, complexity, counter space, convenience, durability and safety issues) I started looking at different kinds of manual grinders online.

Most were of conventional type: made of metal and needing a table lid to be attached to. That would be problematic since we wanted to use it on the marble countertop and there wasn't enough lip to it to attach such a device. Plus damaging the countertop would not be cool.

Then I saw the this Norpro Meat Grinder, etc. Made of plastic and employing a large suction cup it seemed a good solution to the above issue, albeit the plastic build was questionable in terms of durability. But the reviews I saw were mostly glowing and much more positive overall than the ones of the metal, conventional models.

I went ahead and bought it. Upon arrival, the assembly required was minimal. Ditto the disassembly and washing. The manual is small but the use is self-explanatory and the pictures on sides of the box it came in provide excellent information on locking/unlocking the suction cup.


The suction cup on the base works surprisingly well and holds the device in place securely. The supplied key is similar to a little plastic wrench and helps you rotate the lock/unlock knob for the suction cup. But I was able to rotate it by hand, without the key also.

The plastic construction was suspicious at first because even the feeding screw is plastic. The only metal parts are the cutting mechanism, the two pins in the plastic feeding screw that hold the cutter and the plate with holes as well as the crank. Surprisingly, when we started grinding beef, the effort required was much less than I expected (remembering how much effort I had to apply when I used an old-school metal manual grinder) and the whole plastic-fantastic device worked superbly.

The meat we used was USDA Choice top sirloin, so there was no tendon involved, but still the ease of use was unparalleled. And due to having transparent top part, we were able to see what was going on inside, which is not necessary, but interesting.

After the use, the disassembly and washing was very easy. And it looks to be well build and therefore at least moderately durable. Will it last virtually forever like an all-metal model? Probably not, but we are not planning on using it every day either and with occasional use I suspect it will serve us for many years.


The device comes with a sausage funnel attachment, pasta and linguini attachments, the aforementioned plastic locking key and two metal "output" plates with holes of a different sizes.

Pros: Compact, light, easy to use and take apart, suction cup, accessories, sharp cutting mechanism
Cons: Questionable durability

Bottom Line

The Norpro Meat Grinder, Mincer and Pasta Maker is an inexpensive, light, compact and easy to use device. I highly recommend it if you want a meat grinder with a suction cup attachment.

Apple iPod nano 5th Generation MP3 Player - Cool, Stylish with Mediocre Sound

After having used the 1st generation Apple iPod Nano 2 GB for over a year and the 2nd generation iPod Nano 2 GB, I also tried a bunch of other MP3 players, including the latest Sony player (16GB Sony NWZ-S639FR Digital Media Player). The Sony is my current player of choice due to its sound quality, battery life and ease of use. But iPods have always been known for their ease of use and cool features as well as appearances. So I decided to try a new 8GB iPod Nano with a camera and other cool new features.

From my experience with the 1st couple of generations of iPod Nano I expected good usability, but what about sound quality?

What is the 5th Generation Apple iPod Nano? 

The Apple iPod Nano is a compact MP3 player that is miniature, thin, has a 2.2-inch color screen, a click wheel, video camera, FM radio with pause feature and stores songs in the MP3, AAC, protected AAC (from iTunes store or compressed with iTunes) or WAV format in its internal flash memory. There are 8-Gygabyte and 16-Gygabyte versions of it, both available in variety of colors. The LCD screen lets you navigate the songs and also view stored photos as well as the videos recorded using its camera.

Similarly to previous models, the new Nano is compact, stylish and easy to use. The dimensions are similar to the previous versions. The Nano uses flash memory for storing your music/data and therefore is skip-free and less energy-consuming that hard drive based players. The new version has longer battery life (up to 24 hours for audio, up to 5 hours for video) and lighter/brighter screen than the previous generation.

There is now even a speaker (mediocre-sounding as it is) and a microphone for recording voice memos or sound for your videos.

Included Accessories

The player comes with small headphones (ear buds) and a USB cable.  The included headphones are mediocre in terms of sound quality, but are relatively stylish.


I have not looked at the manual but rather I started using my previous iPod Nanos out the box and was able to figure out the use in no time. For the most part. The bottom line here is if you have used an iPod or another MP3 player, there will not be much to learn, just as with previous models.

Still, if you did not use an MP3 player before, you will learn in no time. I found that the new Nano is very similar in terms of usage as the older one.


The Nano has compact rectangular shape with rounded edges on the sides. The build quality is solid. The front panel houses a bright color 2.2-inch LCD screen in the upper part and a circular control cluster with Play/Pause button at the bottom, Skip Back and Skip Forward buttons left and right of it, Menu on top and the unnamed Center button in the middle (serves as a click wheel).

The Nano's controls are locked or unlocked by sliding the small HOLD switch on the top side. The bottom side houses the dock connector and the standard 3.5mm headphone jack. The player is so slim that the headphone jack takes up almost the entire width of the bottom panel. Although I find the fact that the headphone jack is at the bottom slightly inconvenient, but it is a convention nowadays with other players as well an also has packaging benefits. I am sure it would have been impossible to place it on the top panel, since the LCD screen, most likely, takes up all the internal space in that area.

The Skip Forward and Skip Back buttons skip to the next or previous song. When held, they fast forward or backward within the song. Be aware though that in my previous Nanos the internal contacts wore out and trying to push and hold the above buttons did not work anymore and resulted in skipping forward or back one track.

The MENU button lets you go to the previous menu level or, when held, to the main menu. The PLAY/PAUSE button lets you start or resume playback, pause it or turn the player off if depressed for several seconds. Same issue happened with my previous player, turning the player off became very difficult after using it for about a year. Hopefully the newer model is more durable.

The Nano features so-called click wheel. You can place your finger on any area within the outer control circle and move it clockwise or counter-clockwise to scroll through the menu items, change the volume while the song is playing or jump to any point within the song. Very cool and user-friendly feature and, at the same time, easy to control the speed of scrolling, volume change or moving within a track.

The player usage is exactly the same as with the previous generations of Nanos. But the case is less reflective and does not scratch as easily or show scratches as prominently as the 1st generation.

Click Wheel 

The click wheel functionality is really cool. Although there is no actual wheel of any kind, you place your finger on the outer circle of controls and move it clockwise or counterclockwise to scroll through the menu items, adjust the volume or move to any point within the song.

The tactile response of the controls is excellent, including the click wheel. And the Nano makes a short chirping sound when you push some buttons, which is a great confirmation as well. The only issue might be the potential durability (see above).

Comparing with my 16GB Sony NWZ-S639FR Digital Media Player, the click wheel makes quick navigation a breeze. But the fact that it also serves as a volume control, whereas the Sony uses separate hardware buttons on the side makes Sony more user-friendly in volume control regard.


The Nano has a wide exposed connection port for use with a supplied USB cable. The supplied USB cable plugs into the port with some effort and you have to squeeze the ends of it to take it out. You can also use the USB cables from other iPods or the third-party made ones. I used one for charging from an AC adaptor bought for a low price online.

Battery and Charging 

The Nano has an internal battery that recharges while the iPod is connected to the powered USB port. When I connected to my computer, the LCD screen illuminated and the icon that indicates charging appeared. My Nano came charged about 90%. I still followed Apple's recommendation and fully charged it.

According to Apple, you have up to 24 hours of continuous audio playback time on one charge or 5 hours of video, which is the same as was the case with the 2nd generation Nano. Only the first generation model claimed 14 hours. Now, 24 hours is not horrible, but my 16GB Sony NWZ-S639FR Digital Media Player features a 40-hour battery (and some sources claim 50 hours).

For transatlantic flights and traveling in general, 40 hours or more is preferred to 24 hours.

Charging from fully discharged to 80% takes only 1.5 hours and full charging takes 3 hours.

Software Installation 

You can download the latest software from the Apple web site. The software in question is Apple iTunes 9, which seems to be an improvement on the previous iTunes, but not a revolutionary one. Again, I have to mention that with the Sony player I didn't have to download anything at all and simply used Windows Media Player 11 already installed on my computer.

Music Transfer 

You can select an option in the iTunes software that makes the iTunes automatically start once the iPod is connected. The iTunes looks cute and is easy to use. The iPod appears as one of the folders in the left pane of iTunes and you can drag and drop the songs you want from the Library folder that represents your music library. And unlike the earlier iTunes and the iPod Shuffle, you can drag MP3 files directly from your hard drive or any other drive onto your iPod in iTunes without placing them first into your music library.

As soon as you drag and drop the songs, the data processing and transfer to iPod starts. The message is also telling you that you cannot disconnect the iPod at this stage (to prevent data corruption). The LCD display on the iPod also tells you not to disconnect the Nano at this stage.

The Nano supports USB 2.0 Hi-Speed and files are copied very fast. The transfer speed exceeded 5 MB per second. The 8GB version of Nano can fit a little less than 8 GB of music, since in addition to actual files, there are several folders created and files with information about each song are written, including album art, etc.

Depending on song length and the bit rate, you can fit anywhere from 2,000 songs (at 128 kbps bit rate) to 1,000 songs (if you want better sound quality and use, say 256 kbps VBR). You can select the default compression method and bit-rate in iTunes settings (for CD ripping).

The Nano supports Variable Bit Rate (VBR) for better sound quality at the same bit rate as CBR (Constant Bit Rate). It also supports AAC, Audible format 2-4, Apple lossless, protected AAC, AIFF and WAV. What it still does not support (and unlikely will support in future) is WMA. Windows Media is not a good friend of Apple. I have some WMA files, so no chance of playing them on Nano.

Sound Quality 

Even in a portable device, the sound quality is very important to me. My Sony when I first got it became a benchmark for sound quality in a compact device. Its sound was immediately perceived as being better than that of the previous Nano I had, even without using the equalizer.

The new Nano was a letdown. The fact that the supplied headphones were only semi-decent was no surprise. The supplied ear buds lack bass and sound moderately bright overall with slight metallic treble, but the imaging was good, the clarity was decent. The supplied ear buds look stylish (even though they are white and thus do not match the Nano's color).

The single most significant improvement to the sound of any MP3 player is replacing the stock headphones. You do not even have to spend a lot to get better sound. I replaced the stock Apple headphones with the, tried and true, Koss KSC75, which is a larger headphone that is attached to your ear with a clip that curves around it.

I also tried the iPod with large enclosed Sennheiser HD202. Neither of these headphones costs more than $20, but both improve the sound dramatically. With both, the bass improved along with being able to hear warmer, more natural sound. Still, I was immediately disappointed by the iPod's lack of detail, dynamic range and definition in upper as well as lower frequencies. In fact, the sound was mediocre at best throughout the frequency range. Congested sound is not something I prefer, even in a portable device.

In the past I would fault the sound quality on the MP3 format itself. Now, I know that the same MP3 files sound much, much better on my Sony. And using lossless formats with this (and most other iPods) produces no improvement. I even tried Rockbox firmware with a previous version of the iPod and even using Rockbox's different MP3 decoder and its graphic equalizer provided no relief. Seems that iPos in general just have poor hardware when it comes to sound quality.

At least this Nano can play very loud, even with aftermarket headphones, which is not always the case with other players.

Unlike Sony players, which have graphic equalizers, the Nano only has multiple equalizer presets, all of them ineffective in curing the sound issues or compensating for the different headphones' uneven frequency responses. If you choose to get this iPod, I highly recommend Koss KSC75 headphones (reviewed here) to upgrade this or any iPod. At lest they sound decent, unlike the included buds.

Skip Protection 

The Nano players needs no skip protection as it has no mechanical parts (they use flash memory) and will not skip. It is also less susceptible to damage from drops, comparing with the players that use hard drives. The use of flash memory also results in lower power consumption and compact size.


The Nano has a bright and colorful 2.2-inch LCD display. The screen has a bright backlight and features nice color scheme. It is fluid enough for playback of the mediocre-quality videos you can shoot with the embedded video camera. The photos look vivid and sharp for the size of the screen.

FM Radio

The Nano has FM radio, which sounds decent. You can even pause live radio for up to 15 minutes, then continue listening. Clever.


Having used previous generations of iPod Nano, I have my concerns: scratch-resistance and the durability of controls. I have used protective silicone cases and film screen protectors with my previous Nanos and recommend them as a cheap insurance. As for the control durability (see above), let's hope Apple improved that area.

Pros: Stylish, features, camera, orientation sensor, pedometer, FM radio with pause, speaker, screen
Cons: Sound could be better, no graphic equalizer, price, battery life lower than competitors', have to use iTunes

Bottom Line 

Very pleasant in use, feature-rich and stylish, the new Nano is a good choice, provided you do not require very good sound quality. If you demand the best sound quality however (as I do), you will want to look at Sony players instead, for example the 16GB Sony NWZ-S639FR Digital Media Player. I have that model and it sounds much better

MSI R4350-MD512H Radeon HD 4350 PCIe video card - 1080p HDMI And More

My mother's computer is Compaq Presario SR5410F with 1.8 GHz Intel Pentium Dual Core E2160, 1 GB of RAM and Vista Premium, but with onboard video. The onboard video was decent for general use, but for better performance, video quality and playback on the Panasonic Viera TH-42PX80U 42-inch 720p HDTV Plasma TV something better was needed.

Games were not something that the new card was intended to be used with. Netflix streaming was the primary objective, along with HDMI output. The computer is connected to the DELL 1905FP LCD monitor.

I bought the MSI R4350-MD512H Radeon HD 4350 PCIe video card form NewEgg something close to $30, shipping, taxes and rebate factored in.

About the MSI R4350-MD512H Radeon HD 4350 Graphics Card

The MSI R4350-MD512H Radeon HD 4350 Graphics Card supports PCI-Express 2x, has a DVI, VGA and HDMI outs. It can output 1080p signal over HDMI with 7.1 sound, which is perfect for the intended purpose of watching movies through Netflix streaming and display on the TV. One 3-meter HDMI cable carries the video signal and the sound.

The card has no fan (it has a massive heat sink) and came with software and a smaller bracket for mounting in an HTC. The card has a PCIe form-factor (so it will work with PCI express of newer computers), has 512 MB of memory.


I did not have to do anything to disable the onboard video. I have opened the computer case, inserted the card, closed the case, connected the VGA cable and was able use the card in its lowest resolution in Vista. Be advised that the heat sink is tall and might render the next slot (PCIe or otherwise) unusable.

Software Installation 

The software from the included disk failed at the end of the installation on Vista. Still, the driver got installed and so did the ATI Catalyst utility. The Live Update (for the card's BIOS and drivers) didn't work after repeated reinstalls, but the supplied drivers were OK.

After tweaking in Catalyst control center, I was able to have the TV (connected through HDMI) show the same as the primary monitor and I even got the sound in the TV, provided the TV was switched on before the computer.


Immediately apparent was the better contrast and sharpness on the DELL 1905FP LCD monitor, event though I am using the same VGA (D-SUB) cable. Razor-sharp fonts and edges of windows, etc.

The card is probably a very good 3D device, but I wouldn't know since I do not play games. But it works flawlessly with the flat panel monitor at 1280x1024 with 32-bit color. The DVI out is currently unused, but the HDMI out is connected to the TV. The TV is 720p Panasonic plasma and watching the Netflix streaming on it is awesome. The sharpness, contrast and textures are great. The video playback is smooth and fast with excellent colors.

Pros: Low price, razor-sharp images, 1080p HDMI out with 7.1 sound, DVI and VGA, no fan
Cons: Included software not easy to use, a little buggy

Bottom Line 

It might be an overkill for my purpose, but the MSI R4350-MD512H Radeon HD 4350 PCIe video card produces excellent image quality and is very fast. With 1080p HDMI out with 7.1 digital audio, DVI and VGA outs, it is versatile, capable and cheap. I highly recommend it.