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Testing: In-Depth with the Nexus 5X and 6P Cameras

Nexus phones have always had great software and innovative hardware features, but even when the camera specs looked good, performance has been mediocre at best. Google has been happy to point out that it prioritized the cameras in the Nexus 5X and 6P, though. They use excellent sensors and the software processing has been heavily revamped. So how good are they? Let's take a closer look at this year's Nexus cameras.

The Hardware

The Nexus 6P and 5X have a lot in common when it comes to the camera. In fact, they have identical hardware. We're talking about a Sony IMX377 image sensor with a resolution of 12.3MP. That's a little lower than the Nexus 6's resolution last year, and there's one other feature missing from these cameras -- optical image stabilization. We'll get to that later.

These Sony sensors have large 1.55μm pixels and a f/2.0 aperture. These features both make for theoretically better low-light performance compared to past Nexus phones. The pixel measurement isn't something you hear about a lot, but HTC has pushed it as an important metric for its Ultrapixel sensor. Those cameras have 2.0μm pixels, which allows them to pick up a lot of light. However, the resolution was only 4MP. The IMX377 is ahead of most sensors in pixel size, commonly 1.1-1.2μm.

Next to the camera on these phones you also get a laser autofocus module. It's out in the open on the 5X, but it's behind the glass cover on the 6P. This is similar to LG's phones in that it helps you zero in on targets, even in weird lighting conditions. A number of other high-end flagship phones use phase detection tech to focus the camera, but the laser option has proven to be better overall.

Several of the differences between the Nexus 6P and 5X cameras have to do with the internal hardware, not the camera modules themselves. The 5X has a Snapdragon 808 and the 6P runs a Snapdragon 810. According to Google, several of the processing technologies it chose to implement don't work well enough on the 808, so they're exclusive to the 6P. Specifically, electronic image stabilization, smart burst, and 240fps slow-motion video.

Getting Character Eyes Right in Movies

This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 3/25/2014 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

When a character appears on a movie screen, which part of their face do you look at first? The eyes, of course.

You can't help it. As a human being, you're programmed to make eye contact, whether the person in front of you is flesh and blood, or just a fiction of jostling pixels. Like the proverb says: "The eyes are the mirror of the soul." I reckon that's true, but the quote I really want to share comes from the writer G K Chesterton: "There is a road from the eye to heart that does not go through the intellect."

Chesterton's words feel right for the movies, don't you think? At its very best, cinema is an art form that bypasses the brain altogether and engages directly with the emotions. And how do we read emotions in other people? You guessed it: through their eyes.

For a visual effects supervisor, creating a synthetic character with believable eyes is a monumental challenge. I'm sure you can think of a few movies where they pulled it off. And even more where they didn't. Below is a still from a film in the former category: an animated short featuring some truly incredible eyes. The film is called Madame Tutli-Putliand, if you're anything like me, your two responses upon seeing the title character will be (1) "Wow, look at those eyes" and (2) "Uh, hold on … what exactly am I looking at here?"

Have you worked out how they did it yet? Don't worry, I'll put you out of your misery a little further down the page. Before then, let's take a closer look at a few visual effects that have left me, well, wide-eyed.

ChefSteps Announces Joule Immersion Circulator

ChefSteps, whose kitchen labs we visited earlier this year, sends word that they've just announced a new immersion circulator for sous vide cooking. They're calling it the world's smallest and most powerful sous vide tool, weighing just over a pound and outputting 1100 watts of heating. It's also completely waterproof and runs via a companion app. ChefSteps' Joule will begin shipping next May and has a retail price of $300. They're taking pre-orders now $100 off until January 15th. We're definitely going to test this!

In Brief: DxO One Gets Major Update with 1.2 App

Since reviewing the DxO One earlier this Fall, I've been warming up to the device. My criticism of it still stand--it's a boutique product that's pretty expensive and has short battery life. But like other specialty cameras (eg. Ricoh Theta, Lytro), it's something I've begun to carry around in my backpack on a daily basis, and have turned to when I go to events and don't want to carry my DSLR all day. It's not a replacement for my full-frame camera, but a replacement for the iPhone camera (and a reason not to upgrade to the 6S).

As promised, DxO is releasing software updates that expand on the functionality of the One; a new 1.2 app will enable loupe-based manual focus, expanded shutter range (30 sec to 1/20000), continuous shooting mode, new video modes, and a redesigned viewfinder. And for Apple Watch users, you can trigger the shutter from the watch to snap a photo or start video recording--no live view there, though. This flurry of updates is another reason the DxO and app-tethered cameras are interesting: the product can improve dramatically without buying new hardware. The camera is still $600, and I believe Amazon is running a promotion for the camera with a bundled 32GB microSD card. The 1.2 app will go live in early December.

Mobile vs. Desktop: Apple iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface

I've been testing the iPad Pro for the past week and a half now, using it not only as a go-to tablet, but also as an alternative to a notebook for as many day-to-day tasks as possible. I strapped it inside a Logitech Create keyboard and brought it as my sole computer for a weekend work trip to LA. There's a lot more testing to do--my Apple Pencil hasn't even shipped yet--but I wanted to share with you my thoughts on how the device performs, and where it fits and doesn't fit into my work and home use. Specifically, I want to discuss how it, along with other devices, are changing the conversation and role of what are typically classified as mobile and desktop-class computers.

The release of Microsoft's new Surface devices (Surface Book and Surface Pro 4), along with the release of the iPad Pro has renewed the idea of mobile vs. desktop. You can find many reviews that boil their evaluation down to whether the iPad Pro can replace a laptop, or whether Microsoft's Surface laptops can replace the need for a tablet. I'm not interested in that head-to-head comparison--the products are set at different price points, and in my mind serve different purposes. Their hardware and software design illustrate different priorities for Microsoft and Apple for their respective families of computing devices. It's those priorities and design approaches that are really interesting; I want to compare what the iPad and Surface lines stand for: a future that's mobile first vs. one that's desktop first.

To do that, we should first define our terms. So much of this discussion can get muddled in pointless semantic disagreements. When talking about the iPad and Surface, what categorizes one as mobile, and what categorizes the other as a desktop device? Is it the physical formfactor and size? Having a built-in keyboard? Long battery life? Processor architecture? Touchscreen? App selection? All of the above are important to varying degrees, but I think the difference currently boils down to windowed applications and input models, and how those implementations affect how you can use those machines.

Windows and a Desktop: Multitasking for Productivity

For me, the biggest difference in the way you currently use a desktop-class device (eg. a notebook) and a mobile device (eg. smartphone and tablet) depends on whether the operating system employs a desktop model of running programs and file management. As opposed to runnings apps full-screen, Desktop OSes allow for windowed applications to run alongside each other, on top of a virtual and visualized desktop surface. It's a really simple concept to understand, and yet there are grey areas. For example, the home screen on iOS doesn't count as a desktop--it's just an application list, like the Start Menu in Windows. Simple. But on Android OS, being able to arrange files and shortcuts around a launcher screen and run apps in windows makes those devices more akin to desktop OSes, even though Android is typically classified as a mobile OS.

The 10,000 Year Clock of the Long Now Foundation

From the documentarians of Public Record, a beautiful video about the goal and building of the Long Now Foundation's 10,000 year clock project: "The Clock of the Long Now is a portrait of Danny Hillis and his brilliant team of inventors, futurists, and engineers as they build The 10,000 Year Clock-a grand, Stone Henge-like monolith, being constructed in a mountain in West Texas."

In Brief: Designing a Game You Could Learn without Instructions

Laura Hudson, writing for the awesome BoingBoing Offworld blog, shares the work of artist Nova Jiang. Jiang has designed a Chess set where the 3D-printed pieces convey the rules of the game. The shape and size of the customized pieces indicate how that piece moves, and its importance to the game--the idea is that players could learn a variation of Chess (of which there are many, across different cultures) without being explicitly given instructions.

Introducing a New Tested Gear Shop

Hey everybody, Norm here. I wanted to let you know that we're trying something new this week--launching a gear store in partnership with Stack Commerce. That means we'll be able to offer you cool and useful products that we think you'll like, often at pretty big discounts from their retail price. You can find stuff like phones, cameras, robotics kits, and essential accessories in the gear shop, take software courses and acquire skills in the eLearning shop, and even get some freebies and enter giveaways. I've been able to discover some neat gear in the shop just from browsing around, like a laser pointer attachment for a phone that can fit into a headphone jack!

Photo credit: Flickr user furyksx via Creative Commons

One of the best deals I've found so far: 100 Duracell AA batteries and 52 Duracell AAA batteries for sixty bucks! Free shipping too? Donezo. And by shopping in the store, you'll be directly supported the work we do on the site. We're also offering a 10% discount this week with the coupon code Tested10. That can get you $50 off of an already heavily discounted Lytro Illum. The code is valid until next Monday at 11pm PST, and the deals have limited lifespans too. Thanks for checking the store out, and thanks again for supporting Tested! And if you pick up anything or find a particularly good deal, please post in the comments so other people can get in on it too.