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Amazon Disappoints

I buy a lot of things through Amazon – too much some would say. On the whole it is normally a very good experience – such as items arriving before they’re scheduled to with super save delivery. I’ve even had them go above and beyond before, such as when they price matched the Canon Speedlite I was buying because dispatch was delayed and the price had dropped a reasonable amount before the item was eventually delivered.

That said, in the last week alone, I’ve been disappointed a few times:

Can’t Split Super Saver Delivery Into Multiple Packages
I normally don’t bother paying for delivery. I’ve noticed things arrive only a day or two later with the super saver delivery, so I’d rather save the money. The restrictions Amazon have tried to put on orders of this type are a bit crazy though.

When buying two items, if I was to pay for postage, they would provide the option to split them up into separate items and dispatch them as soon as each item was ready. If I choose super saver delivery, I’m not allowed to do that. I am however, allowed to put two separate orders through, minutes apart, which achieves exactly the same thing, but costs Amazon slightly more (two separate credit card transactions). Seems an easy thing to change to me, so I’m intrigued on their logic as to why this restriction  is still in place, or whether it is a legacy restriction from when there was a minimum purchase amount for free delivery.

Expensive Delivery
As I said, I normally go for free delivery because I’m not too concerned about an extra day or so’s delay. I haver ecently been looking at getting a fitbit and was going to pay for delivery to get it to me a bit quicker. Looking into the price of first class delivery and they wanted £6 for it – which for an item the size of the fitbit is a hell of a lot. I could order  a large DVD box set and be charged less for delivery than that!

Between the expensive delivery and problems with trialing Amazon Prime, I’ve actually ended up buying the Fitbit from Firebox. Not only did they only charge me £2 for first class delivery (and dispatch it within 3 hours of ordering!), but it also allowed me to go through Quidco and get 10% cashback, so it has ended up costing me less!

Scripted Customer Support
Normally Amazon support is extremely good and prompt. Up until the last couple of times I’ve contacted them, I’ve always had a good result from them. The last couple of times, however, I’ve had scripted answers which didn’t actually answer my question. The responses I was receiving were normally very similar to the FAQs which I’d already read and which didn’t answer my question, hence the reason for the email.

For example, in the next section I mention my HDNL delivery that actually arrived by Royal Mail. I sent them a message to let them know about this, in-case the lack of delivered notification for the tracking number triggered anything. There was no complaint in my email, but I got a standard email back apologising for me being unhappy with the courier and saying how they were unable to let people choose their couriers – neither of which had any link to my original message.

Another example is that when I was looking into shipping for the fitbit, I thought about going for the Amazon Prime trial. When trying to sign up for it though, it wouldn’t let me go for the trial, only let me pay for it. I sent an enquiry in as I’d never tried Prime before, so found this quite odd. I got a response back within a couple of hours, but the response just reprinted the FAQ page saying how the free trial worked, how to sign up for it, along with a statement saying that if I was unable to see the free trial option then this is because my account had already used the trial in the last 13 months. The response didn’t really respond to my statement that I’d never tried prime before.

HDNL
A lot of people seem to be upset with Amazon’s choice of courier as HDNL. Since the occasion a year or so ago where they left my hard drives outside in the rain and left no notification through the door to say they’d attempted delivery, I haven’t had much delivered by them and if I have, it has been problem free. Infact, the last item that Amazon reckoned was being delivered by HDNL and gave me a tracking number for, actually ended up coming through Royal Mail….

I can’t say anything else about HDNL really, but from the grumblings I see on Twitter, I certainly get nervous when seeing that an item is being delivered via them.

In Summary
Overall I’m pleased with the service and customer support Amazon provides, I just found it slightly strange to come up against these few disappointing points in the last week. Fingers crossed that my future orders (of which there are bound to be a good number) are problem free.

Posted in General.

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Playing With HDR Photography

Over the last couple of months I’ve found myself playing with HDR photography more and more. Inspired by Trey’s work at stuckincustoms.com as well as plenty of other examples over the web, I’ve been giving it a try.

Quickly explained (in a probably poor and inaccurate manner), HDR photography is a technique that allows for a larger dynamic range between that lightest and darkest areas of an image. This is often achieved by taking photos of the same scene at different exposure settings, then merging the resulting images together. The final image is often a more accurate representation of the light levels in the real-world scene, than can be achieved in a single exposure image.

There’s a lot of information on the web about HDR, including a free HDR tutorial from Trey Ratcliff. I’ve also made use of a few books including Trey’s ‘A World in HDR‘ and David Nightingale’s ‘Practical HDR‘ – both have a good mix of tutorial information and inspiring shots. I’m also wanting to get my hands on Rafael Concepcion’s ‘The HDR Book‘.

When do I use HDR Photography?

I seem to be using the HDR photography technique as much as I can at the moment, but mainly when I’m in one of the following situations:

  • There is a lot of detail present that I want to capture
  • There is a mix of shadow and bold colour to capture
  • When I don’t want a blown out sky, but want to still be able to see what’s in the foreground

I’m sure there are better solutions (especially for the last), than using HDR, so feel free to share them in the comments section.

When I go to take the shot, it is then when I decide if I’m going to use HDR or not and configure my camera as such (to get three different exposure levels). More often than not, the resulting image seems to work out, though not always.

I had quite a few RAW shots from my recent Thorpe Park trip, so I’ve also been playing with creating HDR photos from a single raw shot. However, I am yet to come out with a result I’m pleased with. I’ve found that the resulting image seems to be extremely noisy – has anyone else had this issue?

What do I use?

My photos are taken on my Canon 500D, normally using my 28-135mm or 50mm lens (both of the examples below are taken on the first).

For software processing, it’s into Lightroom, exported to Photomatix, back into Lightroom, into Photoshop if required (the two examples below weren’t although the one of the Guildhall probably should have been to get rid of some of the ghosting of people), then back to Lightroom for final touchups/enhancements.

Here’s a couple of example shots from the last month or so.

Example 1 – Bath Guildhall

Bath Guildhall Lit up for Party in the City 2011

This photo was taken during the Party in the City event in Bath in May 2011. I’ve gone for a slightly unrealistic representation of the scene, but like the way the building looks as a result of it being lit up and how it contrasts with the sky.

Example 2 – Saw Alive at Thorpe Park

Saw Alive at Thorpe Park

This photo is taken of the side of the Saw Alive boat at Thorpe Park and using HDR really helps bring out the wood effect on the side of the boat.

So you can see the difference – here is one of the original shots at the middle (almost normal) exposure:

Saw Alive at Thorpe Park

As you can see, it lacks a lot of the details which can be found within the HDR image, especially in the sky, which just appears white in this image. In actual fact, it was a slightly grey day and although not quite as extreme as can be seen in the HDR photo, I quite liked the look that it gave.

What do I need to improve?

A lot.

  • I’ll mainly improve through practice and trying out different techniques in Photomatix, which is why I’m trying to process some HDR photos as often as I can.
  • The biggest issue – I really need a tripod. Really Really. I’ve got reasonably stable hands, but they just won’t do and a lot of the poor results I’ve got have been as a result of shooting handheld. I’ve got some money aside to get myself a tripod, so suggestions for sub £200 tripods (and preferably sub £150) in the comments please.
  • I need to improve the masking out of objects and people. I’m still new to Photoshop, but I’ve certainly been improving as I’m using it more. The main issue I’ve found is that I can get impatient – I want to see it finished, which means some of it can be a little sloppy.

So that is a brief look at some of my early HDR photos. Work I like I post up on my Flickr Page as and when I take and process. Time depending though, I may occasionally share some shots here.

Posted in Photography.

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Useful New iTunes Feature: iPod Capacity

iTunes 10 LogoI have just updated to iTunes 10. Apart from it looking like it came out of a black and white printer, I have noticed a useful feature I haven’t seen much written about.

When an iPod is connected and it shows the available capacity, this now reflects files which haven’t been synced with it yet, but will do on the next sync.

I’m finding this especially useful with podcasts, as after updating them, it will instantly show me if I have enough available space for them on my iPod, without having to attempt to sync them first.

Capacity on iPod before updating podcasts:

iPod Capacity before updating podcasts

After downloading a new podcast, but before updating my iPod, the capacity is automatically updated:

iPod Capacity after podcast update

Posted in Technology, Tip.

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Vue: The Cinema Which Changes Screening Times

Spot the difference between these two tickets:

Vue Showing Different Times

The one on the left is mine, the one in the right was one I found left on a seat on the way out. Yes, it’s the same film, but advertised to start at different times.

Despite having set seats in the cinema, I still like to turn up 10/15 minutes early, which I did. However, on getting into the screen , the adverts were already playing, which I found very strange. Come 3 o’clock, the trailers started (only a couple) and very quickly the film started (in this case the pixar short).

It’s a good job I try and get there early. If I had been someone who tried to miss most of the adverts, I’d have ended up missing the start of the film.

I’d purchased my ticket two weeks in advance (largely to make sure I got a good seat), so I can’t say I was impressed that Vue decided to change their screening times, closer to the time.

As for the film itself?

The Pixar short at the start was probably the least favourite of the ones I have seen. I found myself bored during it, rather than laughing.

The film itself I enjoyed. It certainly pulled at the heart strings towards the end, but it was pretty fun all the way through with a number of laughs. Not sure I’d advise rushing out to see it, but it’s certainly worth trying to see whilst it’s still on at the cinema. As for the 3D effect, I didn’t find it distracting and nor did it give me a headache like Shrek 3 did. If you’re going to see the film at the cinema, I’d say it’s worth spending a little extra to see it in 3D.

Posted in Rants.

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What’s in a Domain Name?

Last week I was contemplating rushing out and buying a couple of .com domain names ahead of the price rise. These domain names would be used for the other few blogs I want to set up.

I tweeted my thoughts on Twitter and got one reply back:

@leesto Nothing worse than choosing the wrong name. You might end up paying twice when you change your mind. #my2centsless than a minute ago via Brizzly

It made me realise that I was more than likely going to end up with something I wasn’t completely happy with, all for the sake of saving a few pence (which is nothing considering the domains I have purchased but haven’t done anything with yet).

I held off in the end. All I need now is a flash of inspiration for a good name.

As for my other blogs, the only reason they’re not live yet is that I can’t think of a good enough name with the domain available (I’m trying to get .com’s but will look at others if need be). This is a big enough hold up to the point that I have some posts ready to go, I just don’t have the blog yet.
So if you do have any ideas on a name for a Theme Park Blog or Development Blog (these are the next two I want to role out). Then, leave your ideas in the comments, drop me an email, or message me on twitter.

Out of interest, do you think I should be aiming for a .com address? Or do you feel it doesn’t matter as much in the age of search engines and twitter?

Posted in General.

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Photo Storage Solution

Since I got myself a Canon 500D at the start of this year, I’ve been taking a lot more photos and as such have been filling up the hard drive in my laptop a lot quicker.

I’ve started looking for a storage solution for all of the photos and videos I’ve taken and have so far come up with the following:

1 x PogoPlug (£80, John Lewis)
2 x Western Digital Elements 1TB Drives (£60 each, Amazon)
1 x 80GB Picasa Year Long subscription ($20 = £14, for 1 year from Google)
Total cost £214

Firstly why the pogo plug?
I’ve decided to go for a pogoplug because as I use a laptop, it’s going to be a lot easier to have something that can stay connected to my network and not rely on me plugging it in each time.
Having online access will also be useful, as there is a good possibility I may need to access some of the photos when I’m not at home.
I’d also look at utilising the pogoplug in other ways. For example, the hard drive the rest of my documents are backed up onto could be connected to create something a little more automated.
I’ve also got some other ideas of where it may be useful, but those aren’t quite as important.

Why the Western Digital 1TB Drives?
The main reason for choosing Western Digital is that’s who my other couple of external drives are manufactured by. I’ve found them reliable and reasonably priced. Fairly simple really – no complicated reasoning linked to tests or anything.
I went for 1TB as although I don’t have that much to store yet, it will keep me future proofed for a while.
The speed of the drives wasn’t much of a concern to me as once the files are written there for the first time, I probably won’t be doing a huge amount with them on a regular basis.
Why 2 drives?
The second is a backup. It will have an exact copy of the other drive.
It may be used for backing up other things, but that’s unlikely.

Why the Picasa Subscription?
It is of my opinion that unless a file exists in 3 places (main storage, local backup & remote backup), it doesn’t exist (I’m sure I’ve borrowed that phrase off someone, sorry I can’t remember who).
The second 1TB drive sorts out local backup.
Unfortunately, the photos will no longer be backed-up under my current carbonite online backup as they’ll be off my laptops hard drive, so Picasa seems to be a cheap alternative. I already use my free storage quota as a backup for my phone photos and would just continue the technique I use here, keeping the albums private in the majority of cases.
The only downside is going to be the hassle and time it takes to upload everything.

I’m not going to be going out and buying this quite yet, but I’m probably not far off. It’ll probably be the pogoplug and one drive first, then the picasa subscription, then the second drive slightly later. Until the second drive is in place, the photos will be remaining on my laptop as a backup.

I’d be interested on your feedback. Think I’ve gone a little over the top? Think there is a better way of going about something? Want to hear more about my reasoning for one of the items? Then leave a comment.

Posted in Photography, Technology.

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Lost – The Finale

LostThis post isn’t about the finale of Lost, but how it was made available.

The fact that it was shown at the same time in the US and UK I think was a brilliant idea. However, it’s a shame they didn’t do the same for iTunes downloads.

As I don’t have sky in my house, I’ve been subscribed to the Lost series pass on iTunes. Therefore, with Lost being shown on TV early Monday morning, I was hoping it would become available during the day for download so I could watch it that evening. But it didn’t.

I saw tweets from the US saying it was available at mid-afternoon UK time. I still hasn’t received an email saying it was ready to download for me though. When I got home that evening, it still wasn’t available for me.

I’d quite successfully avoided spoilers during the day, but knew I couldn’t do that much longer, so immediately went looking for other sources to get the episode – one of the things they’d tried to prevent by showing it at the same time!

Fortunately, my parents have a Sky subscription, so I was able to use their account to watch it through the Sky Player online (though this experience is by nowhere near great – the player is a bit buggy (I had to use IE as it wouldn’t work in Firefox or Chrome) and the quality isn’t great either).

I finally got an email saying the episode was ready to download at 1:45 Tuesday morning. Not too bad a turnaround (if it wasn’t the finale of Lost, I could have waited till then), but it would be nice to see the shows being available to download closer to their air time.

As for the final episode of Lost, I would say it was pretty good, though I was a little disappointed by the whole idea when it became clear.

Posted in Rants.

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WordPress Tip: Update Before Customisation

Before customising a WordPress Theme, always make sure you have updated it first.

I made this error with my original theme. By forgetting to update the theme, it meant that it didn’t handle nested comments which was a big requirement for me.

Hence, I decided to switch to a new theme which has needed only a few customisations (I did, of course, make sure I was fully up to date first).

Posted in Tip.

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Quick Android Tip: Get to a Specific Character

One of the complaints about Android I seem to be seeing recently is that it’s difficult to get to a specific character to change it when typing text on an Android Device.

There isn’t as nice a way as on an iPhone with the magnifying glass. However, I’ve found that you can get close by touching the point, then move the cursor precisely using the trackball/ optical pad (in fact it’s the only thing I’ve used the optical pad for so far!). You can then insert a character, delete one or edit one quickly and simply in the right place.

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The Desire is Here

HTC DesireAfter two weeks of waiting I finally have the Desire in my hands.

Before looking a bit more at the Desire, lets finish off the problems I had with delivery.

The Vodafone Saga Continues

Two weeks after ordering, I finally had the HTC Desire in my hands. Vodafone’s customer service was appalling. At no point in that time did they contact me to say it was out of stock and I would have to wait. Even when I sent an email to the email address I was told, they failed to reply. The only reason I knew I was waiting was because I went on their eForum – a customer should not have to do this.

Because of reading this eForum, I knew I’d missed out on one stock delivery they got in. I also knew when they got the second (so when to expect notification that my phone had been despatched). However, they failed to send me an email to tell me the phone had been despatched, the first I knew about it was when I got an email from the Vodafone Store I was collecting from, telling me it was ready for collection.

I also knew through this eForum that they were sending out 16GB SD Micro Cards to people affected by the delay. However, when I opened up the phone, there was no sign of the card or any notice of it. I had to email them again to chase this up and a few days later, I got a reply informing me that the card was out of stock (oh the irony!) and they didn’t know when they’ll be despatching in, however, I would be receiving one. I’m a bit more sceptical and I’m wondering if they’re making people contact them before sending them out, to reduce how many they’ll have to send out.

There was only one other minor problem, which worked in my favour – my order hadn’t picked up my PAC code to transfer my  number from Orange to Vodafone. One phone call sorted this out (the one guy actually phoned me back as he had to go and get more information which was taking a while – this impressed me) and two days later (yesterday at time of writing), my number was transferred over and I was able to use my new phone. Quite pleased this mess up happened though as it meant my number wasn’t transferred whilst I was still waiting for a phone!

About The Desire

Now I’ve only been using the HTC Desire for about 24 hours, so this look at it is very brief. I have, however, had a Nexus One as my work phone for the last few months, so already had a home screen layout I liked and knew what applications I had to get on there straight away.

The phone itself is nice to hold and I much prefer the physical buttons on it rather than the touch on the Nexus One. I haven’t used it much, but I am not like the optical replacement to the trackball, it just doesn’t seem as sensitive. I won’t comment on the battery life yet – it is poor at the moment (didn’t do a day, though I was playing on it a lot more than normal), but hopefully it will improve.

I’m a bit disappointed that the Desire didn’t come with a neoprene case like the Nexus One did. I like the one on my Nexus One so much that I have actually gone out and ordered one for it.

The main difference between the Desire and the Nexus One is the introduction of HTC Sense. This hasn’t made much difference to me – I removed a lot of their widgets, though I do think generally it makes Android look nicer. One of the differences I have noticed though is with the keyboard, which is slightly different to that on the Nexus One. I’m hoping I’ll get used to it quite quickly and will start preferring it, but at the moment, I do prefer the one on the Nexus One.

I haven’t got many exciting applications on yet – I use Seesmic for Twitter, got Foursquare installed, Remember The Milk (a must have for me), a collection of games I liked playing and also ShopSavvy – can’t go shopping without it. The other thing I had to do was configure some of my personal email accounts, which for the non-Google ones was a small nightmare – expect another blog post about this soon!

The other good thing about having my own Android device now is that I can do some app development. Hopefully, once I’ve got my development blogging there will be some posts on that.

As I use it more, there might be some more posts on the blog about the applications I really like using, but for now I can certainly say that it’s a lot better than my Nokia N70 (which is now somewhere in the Royal Mail System on its way to be swapped for some cash!).

Have you played with HTC Desire, or are thinking of getting one? Perhaps you’ve got an Android Device and have some applications you recommend. If so, leave a comment below.

Note: I am currently on an internship at Vodafone. These thoughts are completely my own after purchasing a phone as a normal customer and do not reflect those of my employer.

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