Category Archives: Tech

Technology

Amazon Alexa and Logitech Harmony

So you have got your nice Shiny Amazon Echo, with all the Alexa goodness!

But Damn, no IFTTT support in the UK at the moment, so how the heck do I get Alexa to turn off my TV?

Well Yonomi has support for the Harmony, as well as other things.

Just set Yonomi up, and link it to your Logitech account, setup the things you want Alexa to be able to do in Yonomi. Then add the Yonomi Skill to Alexa and link the two together.

Pop into Alexa and scan for new devices in the Smart Home section, it will find all the Yonomi tasks, and you can use them. I’ve not added them to a group, just seems to complicate things.

And now I can just say “Alexa turn everything off” and hey presto, all the media systems turned off.

Windows 10 – Bash on Ubuntu on Windows

The latest versions of the Windows 10 Insider Preview have a nice new feature with a very odd name, I give you “Bash on Ubuntu on Windows” – Yes that really IS it’s name!

BoUoW

 

Although Microsoft showed this off with a bit of fanfair at the Build Conference, they have not really shown how to get it all up and running, so I’ll pop the steps down here.

Some things to note before we start,

  1. This is not a Hyper-V of Ubuntu! This is Bash Shell running inside a container inside Windows (Think of it like Wine on Linux, but the other way round)
  2. This will only work on Insider builds of Windows 10 after 14316
  3. x64 only
  4. Like I say this is NOT Linux, and the Linux Kernel is NOT running, as such not everything will work
  5. Canonical worked with Microsoft on this. MS did the Kernel mapper (maps Linux Kernel calls over to equivalent Windows Kernel calls) and Canonical created the run space (it’s 14.04LT at the moment, although 16.04LT is coming soon)
  6. Yes, it’s the NATIVE executable files running on Windows, not some re-compiled version, so even if you add other package repo you can install them with APT
  7. The Windows part of it is NOT open source, although there is a GitHub for the project

Right with all that out of the way, let’s get to the install.

  • Fire up features and settings, pop down towards the bottom and tick the Windows Subsystem for Linux optionFeatureAdd
    This will install all the stuff, and reboot the PC
  • Once your back up and running, click Start and type Bash and the bash installer will pop up, say Y to the prompt and it will download the Canonical package from the Windows Store
    install
  • Let that finish, it will unpack and close the window, now click start then type Bash and you will have the Canonical icon on the results, launch that. Hey presto, Bash Shell, running natively on Windows!
  • Paste the below script into the shell, this will fix some known issues with APT-GET
    cat > /usr/sbin/policy-rc.d <<EOF
    #!/bin/sh
    exit 101
    EOF
    chmod +x /usr/sbin/policy-rc.d
    dpkg-divert –local –rename –add /sbin/initctl
    ln -s /bin/true /sbin/initctl
  • type sudo apt-get update then sudo apt-get upgrade (make sure you create a /etc/apt/apt.conf file if you need proxy support, same as any other Debian based Linux)
  • Install anything you fancy having a play with.
    update

Some useful things

  • You can remove / re-install the Canonical part of the system without unchecking the feature etc. Just use LxRun.exe /uninstall and LxRun.exe /install to re-download the Canonical parts afresh.
  • X11 stuff is not working at the moment, so Shell only.
  • Some packages work out of the box, some require a little massaging as at the moment junctions are a bit squiffy (have a look on the GitHub bugs list for workarounds)

August EP650B Headphone Review

I’ve been using some in ear headphones at work for a while now, and although they worked just fine, the office has become a very noisy place as of recent so I decided to treat myself to some over ear headphones to get some of the noise isolation I wasn’t getting with the in ear ones.

I didn’t want to spend a fortune on them (and hence Active noise cancel was out) and prefered if they had BT4 / APTx support so at least over Bluetooth they would sound half decent. So I went looking for what was around.

I found a few that had decent writeups and the likes, but just then I had an email arrive, Amazon had these at a discount on one of their “Deal of the Day” offers. So thought “what’s the harm” and took the plunge.

SpecificationsIMG_20160427_140602

Bluetooth Specification: Bluetooth V4.0 (APTx and CSR support)
Operating Range: Up to 10m
Frequency Response: 60Hz – 20KHz
Speaker Output: 30mW
SNR: ≥85dB
Distortion: ≤1.0%
Battery: 3.7V/220mAh Built-in Li-ion Battery
Working Time: 10 Hours
Charging Time: 2 Hours
Standby Time: 30 Days
Weight: 235g
Dimensions: 176.6 x 188.6 x 71mm

IMG_20160427_140622Review

Now I know the specs don’t look outstanding, but remember these headphones were under £30 shipped, and had all the features I was looking for, at least on paper. The Frequency range is above average for the price and support BT4/APTx while adding a good level of noise isolation.

SOUND

OK, so they are headphones, so how do they sound? Answer… Pretty darn good! Now I will say straight away, they are bass heavy, but that is not necessarily a bad thing (depending on what you listen too obviously). I’ve tweaked this in the equaliser on my phone and PC, so they are less ‘boomy’ but if you are into metal/hard rock, I’m sure they would be just fine for you. Other frequency ranges are a lot more equalised, with mids and high’s representing themselves well, as long as not drowned out by bass that is. This could be read as a critical point, however other headphone hardware that cost’s a lot more (looking at you Beats) have the same sound representation, so it seems to be what all of the manufacturers are doing at the moment (only Sennheiser seem to have refrained at the moment), Sony started the ‘I can do Bass’ trend a while back. Hopefully it will move on at some point soon, as we all know that better magnets have allowed bigger bass, it’s like the whole blue LED thing, see them everywhere now, even on things that are designed for the bedroom, if the LED is on it’s like daylight in the room.

BUILD

IMG_20160427_140656The build quality on the headphones seems to be sound enough. the fit and finish looks pretty good, and I know the ‘B’ spec units have had some tweaks over the original because of issues with the plastics around the headphone cups. Only time will tell however, so if anything happens I’ll update this post. They fold to allow easier travel as well, which is nice. Pity they don’t come with some sort of case (although one is available on Amazon if you want one). They are packaged with a USB cable and a 3.5″ Headphone cable.

CONNECTIVITY

One of the main reasons for purchasing them was the BT4 support, allowing me to use them to listen and take calls on from my phone (Nexus 6P). And in this regard they work admirably.  I have been pleasantly surprised with how well they handle calls over the phone and Skype for Business, with no complaints from the people I’m speaking to about the noise/quality.

Bluetooth audio quality is great, yes it’s not the exact same as hardwired quality, but as long as your phone supports APTx it’s well within the margins of the flexibility over quality weighing up. They also have the standard BT controls on the Right earphone exterior, so volume, skip and play/pause all work. Just remember, the controls only work over BT, and not over 3.5″ or USB.

NFC pairing is supported, and worked just fine on the Nexus when tested.

The one thing that I didn’t realise, and is not well documented on the box or manual, the USB connectivity allows for more than just charging. When plugged into the PC (Windows 10IP) it registers as a media device with both Audio and Microphone support, and so can be used as a device on that as well. With the extremely useful ability to be connected to both the PC (USB) and the Phone (BT4) at the same time, and switches between the most recently used source. So if listening to the Phone, and then you press play on the PC it sends a Pause command to the phone, and audio on the PC takes over instantly, and vice versa, Very useful!

BATTERY

Battery life is rated at 10 hours+, and I have no reason to doubt that. It’s obviously dependent on how loud you drive them, and what source you use to do it, but I’ve not run out of charge yet through a complete working day, so that’s fine with me.

CONCLUSION

I was surprised by the abilities of these ‘cost effective’ headphones, I bought them on a whim to see if they would do until I found something that I could live with long term, and to be honest, I’ve stopped looking. These are much better than the price would make you believe. In fact one of the nicest things to be said for them is that after I purchased mine, two of my colleagues have also purchased some for the same reason. Not much higher praise really if you ask me than three ‘geeks’ in the same team owning them.

IMG_20160427_140710
Update : Got the travel pack for them and it’s perfectly functional, nothing special but hey, it’s only to hold them safe, so cant expect too much I suppose.

Buy now at Amazon.co.uk

Guide to getting PlexConnect Setup as a Windows Service

My original post on the Plex Forums

Here’s a quick guide to making PlexConnect into a Windows Service, uses SRVAny to run it.

Some notes, SRVAny is not officially supported on Windows Vista/7/8 but works just fine for me in various other things I use it for. Also I don’t have an Apple TV, or anything to test the functionality, so I assume you know how to get that running, as I’ve not even looked into that. I just know it start’s and says it’s working. Oh there is also NSSM that can be used instead of SRVAny, upto you, the install is pretty much the same either way (except NSSM has a graphical Service Installer)

Compiling PlexConnect Yes, you could compile it, but that just adds complexity to updating/fixing/debugging. At least this way you are running vanilla code, and you can go back to the developer with issues. However compiling does have other advantages if it compiles correctly there is a whole lot less hassle as you don’t need the Python runtime installed on the box, but that’s not an issue I wouldn’t think.

Requirements :

  • SRVAny – I’ve put it into a ZIP so you don’t need the whole Server2003 ResKit – Download
  • Python 2.7 – On windows I tend to use ActiveState‘s version, just because it’s easier – Download
  • PlexConnect – Just download the ZIP file from the GIT – Download
  • Service Registry File – if you use the same paths etc, this will save you typing it – Download

Guide

  1. Install Python, I’ve used C:\Python2.7 as the file location, upto you where it goes, just make sure you replace any path names with wherever you have put yours.
  2. Unzip PlexConnect, it will create a Plexconnect-Package folder, rename it to c:\PlexConnect (again upto you where it goes)
  3. Unzip the SRVAny zip and put the two exe files into the PlexConnect folder.
  4. <Make sure you configure PlexConnect>
  5. Once you are sure that PlexConnect is running just fine (see ScreenShot of mine working) then continue, if it’s not working just running from the shell then make sure you get it going now
    Working.PNG
  6. OK, so we have a working setup (well mine is bitching about certificates or something, but hey), now we need to install the service, make sure your command prompt is an admin one (right click the cmd link, then select start as admin)
    AdminCommandPromt.png
  7. CD to c:\PlexConnect and then run instsrv PlexConnect c:\plexConnect\srvany.exe Make sure that it’s installed correctly (see screenshot)
    ServiceInstall.PNG
  8. Next thing fire up Regedit, and navigate to the right section (see Screenshot), add the key, and then the two Data values as highlighted below (Make sure the case is right or if following the guide, then download this reg file and run it).
    Registry.PNG
  9. From the command prompt type services.msc that will launch the service’s manager, wander down to the service and make sure it looks right, and the startup is set to automatic
    Services.PNG
  10. Click the start button, then OK, and you should now see that the service is running
    serviceRunning.PNG
  11. And as Elan (and South Park) would say…. Profit
  12. Oh if this helped… Click the Like button below Thanks ……

I’ve attached a ZIP here Certificates InstallPlexConnect and here’s the post that goes with them.

OK, had a few minutes to spare, and the VM was running anyhow, so here we have a batch file that ‘should’ do it all.

It downloads the bits it needs (including Python and PlexConnect), put’s them in the right places on disk, and creates the service.

It’s very crude, and simplistic, but works on my VM. Like I’ve said before I’ve not got an AppleTV to do any testing, so I leave that upto the people that do have it.

I suppose I should explain usage… Doh

Unzip to any folder you like, and run the InstallPlexConnect.cmd as an Admin. It will make all the folders etc, it will install it all on C:, so edit the script and reg file if needs be.

Also if you already have Python installed, edit the CMD and take out the download and the install sections out, and edit the reg file to point to the right place for the Python.exe file.

EDIT : Just looked into what needs to get it working, seems there is some cert’s that are required. I’ve uploaded some I made into the Certificates.zip file. You need to extract them to the certificates sub folder in c:\PlexConnect to get it all working. They are just generic SelfSSL ones, so can’t see why uploading them would be deemed bad, but if it is, let me know and I’ll delete them.

Plex for NowTV version 2.6.8

Just thought, seems as I’ve updated my personal one here’s the latest Roku Plex Client (2.6.8) packaged for the NowTV

Couple of bug fixes etc, here’s the quick rundown from the Plex Forums

NEW:

  – Add transcode session info to the HUD. (press down on the remote while a video is playing)
  – Add a toggle for DTS support.
FIXES:
  – Fix a crash in Playback Options for non-library content.
  – Fix for Direct Playable content flung from iOS.
  – Fix H.264 level preference.
Download Here, install in the usual way (use a browser to connect to the NowTV box, upload the ZIP file, wait for the Install Success)

OSX 10.6.7 on Hackintosh

Just for giggles (obviously)

Things you will need

  1. VirtualBox
  2. A copy of 10.6 (SL_10.6.6i_by_Hazard.iso is what I used)
  3. A PC With the VTX extensions
  4. Some time and patience
  • Install VirtualBox onto the PC, and install the extensions
  • Fire up VirtualBox, and create a new Virtual Machine by clicking new at the top
  • Name it MacOSX (or whatever, but use the word Mac and it will auto select Mac OSX as the OS, if mot make sure you select it) 
    1
  • Click next throught most of the rest of it, I’d say give it as much ram as you can, but my laptop chugs along quiet happily with 768mb, and create a new virtual disk.
  • Right click the new VM, and select Settings, pop to System and untick the enable EFI option (and floppy). I set the boot order to HDD then CD because I always forget to unmount the disk, but that’s upto you. Also check the Display option to make sure 3D Acceleration is enabled. 
    2
  • Mount the DVD into the virtual DVD Drive 
    3
  • Fire up the VM and it will load the Chameleon, press enter to load the OS Installer and wait for it to get into OSX. 
    4 5
  • Select your language, and agree to the licenses etc, now select Utilities, Disk Utility, Select the raw disk, click Partition, select 1 Partition, name the disk, and make sure the format is Extended (Journaled) and click Apply. 
     67
  • Click close on the Disk Utility and you will be back to the installer screen, don’t click install just yet, rather click Customize 
    8
  • From there expand Chameleon Boot loaders, select Chameleon RC5, and Chameleon Options and select Ethernet Builtin and Graphics Enabler, then scroll down to Patches and select USB Fix and NTFS (if you want to read Win formatted disks). Anything else you want installing (Fonts, X11, whatnot) now’s the time to pick it. 
    9
  • Ok out of that, and click install, go make a cup of tea, as it will take a few minutes to do it’s thing. After it finishes it will reboot, sometimes the reboot will fail with a kernel panic, don’t worry, just reset the VM (right CTRL-R) and make sure to either eject the CD, or change the boot order so the Hard disk boots, not the CD.
  • That will bring you into OSX, and have you go through the initial configuration. You don’t need to use an AppleID, but doesn’t seem to hurt if you do use one. Just make sure to give yourself a login with a password (makes that the SU password then)
  • Right, we now have 10.6 up and running, however that’s not the latest build, and there will be updates. DONT do them from the updater! it will overwrite the Kernel, then it wont boot properly (if doing this on Physical, most modern Intel CPU’s can do this, as the standard kernel will be fine). Right we need to download the update and do it manually, so pop to the Apple OSX 10.6.7 Combo Update page and download it to the machine (the OSX machine), and also before clicking anything, download the 10.6.7 Legacy Kernel Package
  • Right then, install the Combo update, but whatever you do leave it on the screen saying Restart, DONT RESTART Rather now run the Legacy Kernel 10.7 Package installer. Continue through, and select Legacy Kernel (if your on an AMD, then select that as well) and let it install. When finished select the restart option in the Combo update. When you see the Kernel Panic Press Right CTRL-R. 
    10 11
  • Well done, your successfully now running MacOSX 10.6.7, have fun with your ‘Mac’. 
    12

iPod protection

I was informed that Proporta have got a 40% discount on all of the ‘old’ iPod stuff they do.

Pop along to the Proporta site for the skinny on the deal. Also if you have picked up one of the new iPod’s, then pop and have a look at the 3G nano Classic Case and the 3G nano Silicone Case, both look quite good.

I can vouch for Proporta stuff, It’s always good, and always looks after the item it’s holding.

Fuji FinePix A700

The A700 is by no means a new camera, having been launched in October 2006. It is currently available at a very good price point, however – around £80/119Eur/$157.

The A700 is aimed at the home/first time user, and for this user the camera is good. However if you are looking for a camera to compliment your DSLR then this is probably not the camera you are looking for. I’ll explain why, but first some specifications:

Specs

Sensor : 1/1.6-inch Super CCD HR at 7.3MP
Resolution Support : 3,072 x 2,304 (7.3M) /3,264 x 2,176 (3:2) / 2,304 x 1,728 (4M)/ 1,600 X 1,200 (2M)/ 640 X 480 (0.3)
Video Resolution : 320 x 240 pixels ( 10 frames/sec.), 160 x 120 pixels ( 10 frames/sec.)
Lens : Fujinon 3.0x Optical zoom lens, F2.8 – F5.2 – 8- 24mm (Equivalent to 36-108mm on a 35mm camera)
ISO Speeds : 100/200/400 via an Auto mode
Flash : Internal flash. Wide angle (Approx.1.6 -12.5ft.), Telephoto (Approx. 2.0-6.6ft), Macro (Approx.1.0 – 2.6ft).
Flash modes : Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Forced Flash, Suppressed Flash, Slow Synchro, Red-eye Reduction + Slow Synchro.
Display : 2.4" 112000 pixel Amorphous silicon TFT (around 91% scene coverage)
Storage : Internal 12Mb plus xD Card (16Mb one supplied)
Power : 2xAA

Usability

 

The reason I mentioned that this camera is more suited to the home or first time users, is that this camera takes the concept of KISS ("Keep It Simple, Stupid") to a whole new level.

The Camera has no ‘manual’ modes to speak of, and in its default power up state uses a quite competent auto mode. This can be overridden, however it looks like the Fuji engineers believed that end users wouldn’t be messing about in the menus, and as such have spent very little time on their design and layout.

The point and shoot concepts of the camera work well; the zoom is easy to use, as is the display on the rear.

The camera is a little large in comparison to some of the other devices on the market (for example the Optio A20 which I reviewed earlier in the year).

Photos

The pictures the camera produces are a little hit and miss. In good lighting, or under ideal conditions for the flash, the camera produces photos that are at least on a par with more expensive equipment. Its abilities under extreme lighting conditions are not so good.

As you can see from the two pictures here (the right being the cleaned version), the photos do show improvement with just a little touching up. This however does not help in dark conditions. The camera just does not seem to pick up enough information for you to touch things up later.

The camera ‘s macro mode is also a little hit and miss. If you get the distance from the object just right, it produces some good quality shots (under good lighting). There is very little noise to be seen in the photos, even when zooming in on the image after it’s been taken. This shows that the CCD of the device is quite good. It seems that the downside to the device is probably due to the lens and software.

The lens issue also shows itself on shots where the lens is at its widest zoom, with a noticeable ‘fish eye’ effect seeming to happen, however the usual bugbear with cheap lenses is the corners, and this shows very little chromatic aberration.

 

Summary

The camera is certainly not the best of the current breed, but it’s not the worst either. It’s certainly very week on the features list, but some novice users will see this as a positive rather than a negative.

Framing of full frame shots could be an issue as the LCD display clips the edges, however this is not uncommon, and it seems to be the fashion to not put a proper view finder on compact cameras nowadays.

The flash is powerful enough for snap shot use, but can be a bit of a demon when it comes to red eye.

Photos, for the most part, are acceptable and after a little "photoshopping" look fine for most uses.

This camera would have been better if a little more thought was put into the design of its various sections. The case should be a little slimmer, the software a little more grown up, and the lens perhaps a little more in tune with the CCD.

That said, if these things were done I doubt the price would be as low as it is for this camera. Direct competitors are few and far between at this price point, the closest being the Pentax Optio E-20 or the Sony DSC-S600, however both of these are 6MP cameras and not 7MP, so not directly comparable.

Conclusion

If you are new to digital cameras, or need a compact and already own xD Cards then you could do worse than the Fuji A700.

However, I suspect you’ll outgrow it quite quickly, so it may be worth saving up and getting one of the newer 9 or 10 Mega Pixel compacts that are now available.

It would be an ideal kids first camera as it is built well, relatively light and requires no setup whatsoever.

If you cannot stretch the extra 60 pounds or so for the next level up, then this is certainly better than the ‘no-name’ cameras out there; although the lens is not perfect, and the software and features lack, it is still a decent ‘bang for the buck’ camera from a reputable manufacturer.

Author’s note – The thumbnail images link to the bigger original which are around the 5mb mark. Some of the photos have been touched up in PhotoShop.

FSMO Roles and moving them

I wrote last week about my move from Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2007, and in that article I mentioned that I moved my Domain Controller over at the same time.

There has been questions about what and how, so I’ve knocked this together for anyone that needs to do likewise.

In this scenario we have our old server, and we have our new freshly Server 2003’d server, OLD and NEW.

  • Install DNS on the NEW server, however do not configure it. To do this just add the DNS role through Add Remove programs. You may also need WINS if you use legacy OS’s.
  • Configure the NEW server’s network with a static IP, and the primary DNS should point to the OLD server for DNS, with itself as a secondary.
  • Join the domain on the new server (through computer properties) and reboot.
  • DCPromo the server upto a DC, you should join this server as ‘Additional Domain Controller for an Existing Domain’. This will automatically configure the DNS to replicate the DNS of the domain. Use the defaults for all the settings, unless you have a good reason not to. Make sure you remember the recovery password that you enter.

Write after a reboot at this point you will have two DC servers on your LAN (NEW and OLD), the problem is however that OLD will still be the FSMO master for all the roles in the domain, seeming as we are decommissioning this box we need to move all the roles.

  • First off we need to make the NEW server a Global Catalogue server, to do this launch ‘Active Directory Sites and Services’, now expand your site, then expand servers, select the NEW server, then right click and properties of NTDS Settings (on the right pain). Select the ‘Global Catalogue check box, now ok out of this screen.
  • Now change the properties of the NEW server network to point to itself for DNS as primary and the OLD server as secondary.

Now that the server is a GC server we can assign it FSMO Roles, lets do that.

  • Launch the ‘Active Directory Users and Computers’ from Admin tools.
  • Select the Domain and right click, select ‘connect to domain controller’, select NEW then ok.
  • Right click the Domain, select ‘Operations Masters’.
  • You should now see a screen with three tabs, Select the change button on each tab to migrate that role to the connected server.
  • Domain Naming Master must now be transferred. Launch the ‘Active Directory Domains and Trusts’ tool from Admin Tools.
  • Right click the root level, and select the ‘Connect to Domain Controller and select the NEW server.
  • Right click the root level, and select ‘Operations Master’ then Change. This should move the Ops Master role over to NEW.

The last couple of roles can either be done through script (as can all of the above), or with an ‘unsupported but shipped’ tool. We will use the later as it’s easiest to describe without going into how to use the NTDSUTIL.EXE tool.

  • First register the Schema Management tool by typing regsvr32 schmmgmt.dll into the run box on the server.
  • Now run MMC and add the Active Directory Schema snapin to it.
  • Right click the Domain name, and select ‘Change Domain Controller, select NEW server.
  • Right click the Domain name, and select ‘Schema Master’, then change.
  • Now we need to change the Site Licensing Server, to do this open ‘Active Directory Sites and Services’, now select Sites, then your domain, then on the right pain right click ‘Licensing Site Settings’ and then Change on the Licensing Computer area.

Ok nearly done now. Reboot the NEW server, and wait, what we are looking for is an event type of 1869 (or 1119, but we should get an 1869) to show up in the NEW servers Directory Service log. Whatever you do don’t shutdown the OLD server until you get this, else nobody will be able to logon, as we will not have a GC server on the lan.

When we get that Event happen, we can remove the Global Catalog role from the OLD server, this is done in the same way as we added it to NEW earlier.

Now we do some checks and force the PDC role over, and for this we will use NTDSUTIL.

  • Launch a command prompt
  • type NTDSUTIL
  • You should see ntdsutil: at the prompt. Here we type Roles and press enter
  • fsmo maintenance: connections and enter
  • server connections: connect to server NEW (or servername here) and enter
  • Connected to NEW using credentials of locally logged on user.
    server connections:
    CTRL-Z and enter
  • fsmo maintenance: Seize PDC
  • This should result in the server attempting a nice transfer of the role (which should already be on the NEW server). The results will also tell you about the other roles. If any of the roles are still on the OLD server, then type the appropriate command from below to seize the role on the NEW server.

    Seize infrastructure master
    Seize domain naming master
    Seize RID master
    Seize schema master
    Select operation target

That should be it. You can now DCPromo out the OLD server, and use the new server as if the OLD one did not exist.

The only things left that may need to do are, setup the helper addresses in DNS so the server can lookup Internet DNS names. Setup your DHCP Scope and options.

If there is anything that I have missed, then please let me know.

Review: Pentax Optio A20

I approached the review of Pentax's new little baby with some trepidation. Why, you may ask? Well, for the last 5 years I have been a Canon user through and through. I have had two of their Digital Ixus cameras (4 and 6MP – megapixel) and three of their Amateur status Digital SLRs (300D, 350D and 400D). I have also played with the Canon 10MP Ixus, and was not all that impressed, hence the reason I stuck with our 6MP Ixus.

With that in mind, I came to the Optio not expecting too much. So far, all of the 10MP compacts that I have seen or seen shots from have not been all that impressive.

I was shocked by how well the A20 takes photos, with no advanced configuration.

The A20 is the replacement for Pentax's much liked A10, but adds some nice touches. The most obvious is the 10 Effective Mega Pixel CCD Sensor with a max capture resolution of 3648 x 2736. Other features are Shake Reduction (3 modes), Facial Recognition, a soft flash mode and most importantly the new ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) processor.

Specifications

  • 10.0 mega pixels
  • 2.5inch TFT LCD screen
  • 3x optical zoom equivalent to 38mm-114mm in 35mm format
  • 22 MB Built-in memory
  • SD & SDHC memory card compatible
  • 15cm macro
  • Sensitivity range – ISO64 – ISO800
  • Shutter speed range – 1/2000 sec. to 4 sec.

In Use

After charging the battery and popping my memory card into the camera (note: the A20 does not come with an SD card at all, so make sure you have a spare) I decided to perform a test in typical English overcast weather, as it should show up any issues with changeable light conditions.

I took the camera into the countryside, and took some shots that would allow me to judge the quality of the A20's sensor and processor.

As you can see with all the shots here, the quality of the photos is top notch – even if my skill is not. You can click any of the thumbnails for a higher resolution version, but be warned most of them are in excess of 4Mb.

The camera worked well and felt good on my initial outing. The build quality is certainly up there with anything that Canon and Fuji have put together; it does not weigh much and is very slim with a great screen that is easy to see under all light conditions. I was also impressed with the speed of the auto focus when in its full auto mode; some of the other 10MP cameras struggle to do this quickly, especially when the light is low.

On that initial outing I filled my 1Gb card, then filled the 256Mb replacement I popped in, all on the same charge. So battery life is good – I was expecting the screen to sap the battery life, so this is a welcome surprise.

The A20 also seems to be quick when saving a shot to the card. I was timing writes on its 10MP fine mode at below 3 seconds. Considering that there is 10MPs worth of data for the ASIC to process this is good, showing that the processor is up to the job. Incidentally, the timings are around the same for my Ixus which is a lower CCD size.

As you can see the A20 makes easy work of even very low light shots.

 

Ease of Use

This is where the A20 really shows off. The layout of the camera and menus is very intuitive. The modes are easy to identify and use; with only a single button press to access the mode menu, switching between them is easy and quick. There are a variety of built in photo modes ranging from the default Auto mode through to completely manual modes, with things like People, Landscape, Animal, Baby and even a Food mode. In the manual mode access to speeds and ISO modes is a doddle. There is even a quick switch button to put you back into the Auto mode should you need to get back to it in a hurry.

 

Lens

The lens is the same 3x zoom SMC one found on the previous compact Pentax cameras, and this is no bad thing. The reputation of the lens is a good one, and let's be honest: if it's not broke, don't fix it.

The lens always produces sharp pictures up to its 3x magnification. However, the digital zoom mode is – like all cameras – one that should be used sparingly.

The effective lens magnification is 38mm-114mm if compared to a 35mm camera, so gives a decent range. However it's not quite wide enough at its lowest magnification level, where as a true 35mm would have been nice.

 

Technology

Besides the obvious 10.4MP CCD (10MP effective) there is a lot of nice technology on this camera. The most obvious of which are the Share Reduction and the Face recognition.

The Shake Reduction system works better than the one employed on the Sony cameras of this size, and does not seem to clip the photos as much. This is probably because it uses Pentax's CCD-Shift system rather than a pure digital version. In practice I found that you could shoot at around 2 speeds quicker with the system than without. For example, a shot that I could hold sharp and steady at 1/60sec would be usable at 1/8sec with the system active. A definite advantage.

The other system that seems to be popular with manufacturers at the moment is the facial recognition. The camera 'sees' a face and automatically adjusts both the focus point and the shooting mode as it sees fit. The Pentax system goes a little further and can actually recognise children and animals as well, and this makes the camera a great 'point and shoot' tool.

 

Quality

The A20 seems to manage happily under most conditions, although I did see it struggling on some dark scenes. However, these could be easily corrected using Photoshop without loosing any details.

I was also shocked by how little noise this sensor created even at high ISO modes. The Ixus certainly looks better "un-shopped" but the resulting images are certainly more detailed using the A20. Even at ISO 800 the noise was not as high as I would have expected. It is worth noting that the auto mode seems to suffer most at low levels, and the best results are achieved using the Manual modes.

As you can see, under dark light conditions the photos seem to benefit from a little Photoshoping. However the details are captured well so the photos look good after balancing. 

Verdict

The A20 costs – at the moment – around £160 (243Eur or 315USD), so it's one of the cheapest 10MP cameras on the market.

The quality of the shots are great, and the device is light, small and easy to use.

This camera will certainly be added to my list of devices when I replace my now aging Ixus.

Yes the shots are not as good as the ones I get from my Canon 400D, however the lens on my 400D cost the same as this camera, and because of these points I can highly recommend this camera to anyone that wants a new compact digital camera.

I forgot to mention it earlier in the review, the digital video capture mode is very good as well, and records in DivX.

The only downside that I noticed, was the USB port on the device. Instead of using a standard mini USB port, Pentax have gone for an even smaller port. This means that you cannot just use a standard cable, and instead have to carry the included one around.

Score : 9/10 – Highly versatile, small, light and easy to use compact digital camera.