Thursday, November 27, 2014

Alienware Area-51 Desktop & Alienware 13 Laptop debut at SITEX 2014

Alienware has brought the legendary Area-51 gaming desktop back in style, with a bold new form factor, and showcased their newest gaming laptop, the Alienware 13.

Alienware Area-51
Driven by Intel's latest six- or eight-core Haswell-E Core i7 K-series factory-overclocked processors, the Area-51 allows customers to configure the ultimate gaming machine, with options for up to:
  • triple AMD, triple NVIDIA or dual NVIDIA Titan Z graphics cards
  • 32GB Quad Channel DDR4 RAM
  • 512GB SSD with additional 4TB HDD storage
  • Killer Gigabit Ethernet
  • Wireless-AC
  • and... Windows 8.1 Pro 64-bit (Hisham asked if there were options to downgrade to Win 7. "Not at the moment", they said)
This state-of-the-art pyramid will set you back S$3999 (dual GPU) or S$4999 (NVIDIA Titan), and can scale up or down depending on configuration options.

Alienware 13
The newest laptop in the Alienware's arsenal features a design refresh that, let's be honest, responds to the community's sentiment. The sharp aerospace-inspired designs have been well-received, but the bottom line is that the chassis is still way too thick and bulky to go up against competitors. I'm happy to say that the design language has been retained, within a much slimmer, and waaay sexier chassis, measuring 1-inch thin and starting at 4.5 pounds in weight. The screen comes in FHD by default, and Alienware offers options for up to QHD resolution, and touchscreen (in case you want to play Angry Birds in glorious 4K).
In addition to this, beginning with the Alienware 13, all new Alienware products will feature a special dedicated PCI Express-based port for the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, which houses full-length, dual-height graphics cards with up to 375W of power, and provides 4 powered USB 3.0 ports for easy connection of peripherals. The Amplifier aims to give users the choice of desktop graphics card from either AMD or NVIDIA, to work alongside their Alienware laptop. Great solution for a performance boost at home, while retaining portability on the move.
The Alienware 13 begins at $1,999, and the Alienware Graphics Amplifier retails for S$418.99 (card not included I assume).

If you want to check these new products out for yourself, Alienware is at SITEX 2014, Expo Hall 5.

Tech Review: Lomography Petzval Art Lens

When asked to review the Lomography Petzval Art Lens, I quite quickly said yes, without too much thought about what would be in store for me. I've toyed (hurhur geddit) around with Lomo products before, and as a digital photographer accustomed to minimal chromatic abberations, tack-sharp images, clearly-distinguishable bokeh and other clinical perfections achievable with the single click of a button in Lightroom, even my most twisted frame of mind had trouble making me let go of the fact that I have all but lost precious control of my aperture, shutter speed, focus and ISO.

For the record I still feel comfortable with a manual SLR. But Lomography's artistic concept is quite a different ball game, oftentimes leaning heavily on the highly forgiving nature of photographic film to capture otherwise ruined shots (and celebrating said near-destruction as art).


In the past year, Lomography has turned its focus towards engaging the digital photography market, with the Micro Four-Thirds Experimental Lens Kit for mirrorless systems, the upcoming New Russar+ for L39 and M mounts, and the Petzval lens for Canon and Nikon DSLR systems. This represents a slight change, or at least deviation, in direction for them, aiming to make unique, optically idiosyncratic lenses available to digital shooters instead of drawing them back to good ol' analogue photography..

 At a focal length of 85mm (often considered the most flattering focal length for portraiture) and a maximum aperture value of f/2.2, let's be clear about one thing - the Petzval lens isn't your typical plaything from Lomography. Without the luxuries of electronic apertures, auto-focus or even focus confirmation, users in my opinion will require adequate experience in aperture management and a keen eye to lock focus optically while capturing moments. If you don't already have a full frame DSLR body, I would recommend thinking about that first before spending on this lens. APS-C cameras will result in focal lengths of 127.5mm or 136mm (Nikon/Canon respectively) and unless you somehow feel comfortable working within that range, I imagine it will be quite the nightmare to operate snappily. I also believe full-frame cameras will more effectively bring out the unique optical features of this lens. While it isn't impossible to use this lens for street photography (by which I mean un-posed pictures), it will definitely be a heck of a greater challenge to use day-to-day than the more conventional 35mm or 50mm lengths.

Aperture size is controlled by a series of old-school-looking brass plates that frame the aperture hole nicely in the center of the lens. The plates start from the lens' maximum aperture of f/2.2, then move up to the conventional value of f/2.8, through to f/16 in 1-stop increments. After you get used to operating the lens, there's something quite therapeutic about palming an aperture plate (or two, if you're awesome like that), to have options on hand without having to fish out and sort through the whole carabiner of plates everytime you wish to switch. In my sessions with the lens I've alternated between f/2.8 and f/4, and f/4 and f/5.6. As far as my limited time with the lens could show, these were ideal aperture values that brought out the best of the lens. I also had the chance to mess around with the Petzval Special Aperture Plates, which feature unusual shapes that will show up in your background's bokeh. Great for concept stuff, but perhaps not for everyday use, in my opinion.

If an image shot with the Petzval were to be immediately recognized, it would perhaps be because of its swirling, arcing bokeh patterns and soft, misty feel, which I expect would usually prove a source of anguish and despair to aforementioned digital photographers, but otherwise has a rather dreamy and artistic effect to it. This is where aperture comes into play - too wide and the bokeh smudges into a huge singular blur; too small and the bokeh closes down, minimizing the swirly effect. On sunny days, on-focus images shot at f/5.6 onwards are guaranteed to produce painfully sharp shots. Indoors where more light input is required and larger apertures are in place, the focal sweet spot becomes paper-thin and misty images are not uncommon (or it could be my unsteady hands. YMMV~).


As far as the lens itself fares, it lives up to its inclusion under the Lomography brand: a slightly unpredictable, not-always-easy-to-use lens that you'd do well to just go on a journey with, and discover a new dimension of photography with. But perhaps the golden question boils down to this: is your photographic journey worth S$998 for a large, heavy, manual lens?

Wait, how much?!
 Yep. S$2 short of a whole grand. That's the price you will pay for a Petzval. As a photographer not naturally inclined towards portraiture, this frankly isn't a lens that I would consider purchasing. I always recommend my readers to try the product in question for themselves - I am after all just a single point of view. Failing that opportunity to do so, the most telling question I would say you should ask yourself is be your natural affinity towards portraiture. As with all things analogue, the lens will make you slow down and consider the value of your shot before taking it. After all, you will be quite obviously crouching or bending, trying to get the focus right. This exercise will very likely bring about a more thought-out shooting process, slowly improving the effectiveness of your photos.

So how much is your photography worth?
View the rest of my published shots at my Facebook album.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Drive Behind Pangdemonium

When thinking about digital storage in relation to performing arts, we usually gravitate towards filmmakers and musicians, they being the ones having to record numerous drafts and snippets and footage and clips as they work towards a final piece, often in uncompressed data formats that require obscene amounts of storage capacity.

Thespians aren't the first performers that come to mind when considering the horrors of a perpetual digital storage crisis. As an art form that is brought to the audience in real life and real time, the world of theatre, traditionally at least, requires far less storage than their counterparts. It's hard to say in this day and age that there is zero requirement for storage in theatre, where sound effects and soundtracks often support shows, and video embellishments and interactivity are increasingly commonplace and complex.

Local theatre company Pangdemonium was founded in 2009 by actor Adrian Pang and wife Tracie. Following the success of "Fat Pig" and "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice", the latest play to undergo Pangdemonium's treatment is "Frozen". No, something much darker than a princess with ice-making powers.

I had the opportunity to learn more from the man himself, Adrian, about how technology has changed us as a society, and how it has affected him and the company.

First of all Adrian, what would you say Pangdemonium stands for?
Pangdemonium stands for theatre that is not only entertaining, but also enriching, enlightening, and empowering; we believe in theatre that is aspirational and inspirational, passionate and compassionate, and impacts on audiences viscerally, intellectually, emotionally.

As you see it, is technology today stripping away what it means to be human, or does it in fact help reveal more of the human condition?
Technology certainly is keeping people apart, especially when people are together. You only have to observe friends or families in public, for proof that people have forgotten how to truly be together. Even in the theatre or the cinema, many individuals feel the compulsion to disengage from what they have paid to experience, in order to check up on what is happening on the outside. Which, by the way, is bloody rude, not only to the actors on stage, but also to the other members of the audience. If someone ever does so when I'm on stage I WILL MAKE SURE THEY STOP.

In fact your latest play Frozen deals very much with the human condition. What do you ultimately want your viewers to take home from that?
Three things:
  1. that we all have a responsibility as a community to protect all children from abuse in all its forms;
  2. crime and punishment, justice and retribution, redemption and forgiveness - forget everything you think you know, because Frozen will test you and make you re-evaluate your beliefs, and even get into heated arguments about them; 
  3. there does not need to be singing and dancing, fancy costumes and moving sets, for it to be a great night at the theatre.
Hand on heart, how much time do you spend on your gadgets? Are they a big part of your life? And what can’t you live without?I am a bit of a tech moron, so my gadget needs are very basic. I probably would have trouble with an electric toothbrush. But having said that, I cannot live without my laptop. In fact, I have a love-hate affair with it.

That said, you work with Western Digital for your storage needs for Pangdemonium; what do you use and can you tell us how does it fit into your workflow?
I am constantly working on some kind of writing - whether it's composing copy for publicity collateral, scripting, content for production programmes, etc - which takes up a lot of time, because there's always updating, editing and re-writing to do. I actually secretly love it! And having WD for my storage needs has been a real blessing and huge help to me, because I know that WD always has my back: speed, volume, security, reliability - for a borderline OCD writer like me, it's a perfect writing companion!

Pangdemonium uses a mix of portable and desktop hard disk drives from Western Digital, with the My Cloud EX4 storage server at the heart of their operations. As the company's central drive, it provides secure remote data access to employees wherever they are, as long as they have an Internet connection, and automatically backs up all computers and devices. This increased accessibility to the latest and most updated information has given the team more time to prepare for each production, instead of constantly having to housekeep their shared drive, and added assurance of data safety, with its backup measures.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Adobe Creative Cloud 2014: Keeping up to date without breaking your bank

This is part of my on-going review series for Adobe Creative Cloud 2014, of which I was given a complimentary one-year subscription.

When Adobe CC was first announced last year, many weren't sure where to place their opinions. A good many (such as I, initially) made calculations to see the difference between Creative Suite and Creative Cloud, and quite quickly realised that you the S$792 you will fork out over a year for a complete Adobe CC subscription will never compare to the thousands of dollars you would have to spend on any previous CS Master Collection. And perhaps why that wasn't so immediately apparent was because, and I'm sure many of my readers would already know this in... more than one way, Adobe products are amongst the most pirated software in the world. Adobe hopes to mitigate that with the availability of Creative Cloud.

I won't claim that Creative Cloud can or will shut piracy down. Neither does Adobe, and quite prudently so. That would have been disappointingly naive. Instead, much like music and Spotify, or videos and YouTube, it feels like Adobe is looking to make their very desirable offerings more affordable through technologies that weren't available before, with value adds to the greater ecosystem that will complete the user experience. In doing so, they hope, as do I, that more users will appreciate the benefits of paying a reasonable monthly price to have access to the latest updates and features. There will I'm sure be those who have built enough of a personal ecosystem around their Creative Suite apps that they will feel no impetus at all to move to the Creative Cloud, just because they've been doing fine the last 5 years. Obvious legalities aside, it's hard to blame them, given Adobe's pre-CC pricing model.

I should qualify at this point, to conclude the pre-amble, that I don't think Adobe's previous prices were unreasonable. Premium, perhaps, but given the almost unfathomable amount of features and possiblities built in to Photoshop, to name just their most popular product, they are qualified to ask that sort of money for it. What it was though, was simply unreachable, and adding to that the fact that most users probably use no more than the most common 5-10% of its capabilities - advanced users perhaps stretching that figure to 50% - it is near impossible to justify paying in excess of a thousand dollars for the program.

One year and lots of aggressive marketing later, the Creative Cloud apps have undergone major refreshes, both inwardly and outwardly, as they move into their second year of service with Creative Cloud 2014. One of the greatest advantages of CC is its update cycle. I've had my subscription for no more than 3 months, and in this time I have already been bugged 3-4 times by the CC manager app to download and install updates. Along with that there is also the rather obvious matter of choice. Anytime you decide you don't require a service anymore, you'll be able to drop it within 30 days of your decision, depending on the plan you selected, keeping sunk costs to a minimum. What's not to like?

As a photographer who also dabbles in abit of video and audio production from time to time, I primarily use Lightroom and Photoshop, along with Premiere Pro and Audition once in awhile. As my main tool, Lightroom can today still be purchased and function on its own as a One-Time License, for which I'm grateful. Subscribing to Lightroom through CC, however, unlocks Lightroom Mobile on the iPad, allowing you to sort your photos and do rudimentary edits (exposure, contrast, color/B&W, etc) on the go. This is great for the mid level professionals who have back to back schedules but don't necessarily have a team yet to hand the processing and editing to, post-shoot. CC subscriptions also allows users to use companion mobile apps like Photoshop Mix and Adobe Sketch with Photoshop CC, or Adobe Premiere Clip with Premiere Pro CC, powerful and accurate tools to help you capture those creative brain farts wherever you are.

At this point I need to shout about Adobe's incredible subscription plan for photographers. Keeping in mind that a single app subscription, ie. an ala carte selection, is S$26/month, the Photographers plan gives you the latest versions of Lightroom, Lightroom Mobile, Photoshop CC and Photoshop Mix - basically the complete set of desktop and mobile tools available from Adobe that a photographer will need to function - for S$13/month. If you haven't already done the math, that is half the price of 1 app for 2 apps and their mobile companions. Even if you find zero use and interest for Lightroom, you would have to be frighteningly stupid not to take up this deal.

CC apps, I have noticed, also boot up faster than its predecessors, probably due to tightened code. This is surely a welcome change for efficiency maniacs (come on, say it loud and proud) or those like me who want to execute an idea snappily, before the inspired processes or creativity slips our minds. Yes, it's a thing. It happens. No, you don't have to be old and forgetful to experience this.

Because Photoshop is to me a secondary tool that I only use for more complicated operations like image stitching, image stacking or HDR blending, I haven't had much opportunity to explore the great new features of Photoshop CC 2014, like automatic searches and downloads of missing fonts from the Typekit library, new blur motion effects and focus masking.

There will be more in-depth articles on that and the other apps I use, so stay tuned to this space!