Griffin Clarifi Friday, Feb 13 2009 

One of the reasons I was anxious to switch from an iPod Touch to an iPhone was the iPhone’s camera.  Over the years I’ve carried various small cameras to capitalize on unexpected photo opportunities or to document the various project that I’ve been working on.  The idea of having one less thing to carry was very appealing, and with the added capabilities of cataloging, geo-taging and uploading the photos directly from one device was something I thought could really reduce my turn-around time processing and publishing these images.

I didn’t have high expectations (or requirements) for the camera since it would only have to hang with my most recent camera of choice, the VistaQuest VQ1005.  At about $25USD, this 1.2MP camera requires almost ideal conditions to take “good” photos, but it has allot of character and its small size and durability (as well as high level of compatibility, storing its photos on a regular SD card) made it almost ideal for my application.

I say almost idea because, like the iPhone’s camera, it lacks the ability to take close-up, detailed photos.

Almost immediately after I started using the phone I thought of several applications that I wanted to write using the camera, and a few of them would use it as a way to import printed information or drawings.  I carry a Molskine around that I use to sketch out ideas and I’d like to catalog some of these items so they are always with me.  Unfortunately, the phone’s camera lacks the focus range and/or resolution for this sort of work.  Since upgrading the resolution of the camera is out of the question, a change to the optics is in order.

I was aware of several DIY methods of solving this problem and some seem to do the job well.  However all of them seemed inconvenient enough that I would inevitably be without them at the times I need them the most, so I didn’t pursue it.  Then one day I came up with an idea for a new app so compelling that I needed to solve this problem, so I decided to come up with a product myself.

Once again I searched around for the latest DIY solutions to the problem to use as a starting point for my own research and this is when I happened across Griffin’s Clarifi iPhone Case.

For the most part this case is your run-of-the mill iPhone protection device.  There is the novel feature of being able to remove the bottom half of the case to allow for docking, but otherwise it’s a two-piece plastic sleeve and clear screen protector similar to so many others that I’ve seen.

The interesting difference however is that this case incorporates a small lens that can be slid into position in front of the iPhone’s built-in lens which provides the ability to take macro (i.e., close up) photos without loosing focus.

I’m not a big fan of cases for electronics, especially when they are well-designed products that are a pleasure to look at and hold, and coming from the iPod Touch, I already felt the phone was a little “bulky”, but if the case can provide such valuable functionality, in addition to protection, it might be worth the extra bulk.

The Clarifi retails for $34.99 but I was able to get mine from Amazon for about $25.00 including shipping.  Here’s the results:

Shot of my notebook with the standard iPhone lens

Same page, with Clarifi lens in place

This is a shot of some notes I had for release 1.1 of my iPhone app “Horsepower”. The paperclip is just holding the page flat because the depth-of-field of the macro lens is shallow.

Here’s another page with some future concepts for Horsepower, apparently the auto-rotate of the phone’s camera doesn’t work so hot when you’re not parallel to the ground.

Another "before" shot (you'll have to rotate it in your head)

...and after

I definitely recommend this case, you can get it for the cost of a plain-vanilla iPhone protector with the bonus of being able to take photos of small or close-up things. For my application this is a requirement, but even for more casual purposes it’s very nice for getting shots in close quarters.

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Black & Decker VPX Cut Saw Monday, Feb 2 2009 

Black & Cecker VPX Cut Saw

Black & Decker VPX Cut Saw

When I first saw the VPX line of tools (Black & Decker’s entry into the consumer-grade Lithium-Ion cordless tool market) I wanted them. The white plastic and shininess, along with the slightly-futuristic lines drew me in. Fortunately I wasn’t in the market for any of the tools offered at the time and managed to resist the purchasing urge long enough to do some homework on the subject.

The reviews I read were all over the place, but over time I gathered feedback from the more reliable sources and the consensus was that some of the tools were OK, but for a little more money you could do a lot better. This lead me on a search for the perfect (for me) subcompact driver, ultimately deciding on the Milwaukee.

(which of course I can’t afford, so that’s in a holding pattern for the moment)

Anyway time marches on and I forgot about the VPX tools, sexy as they are.

Fast-forward to about six months later. I’m at Menards checking out these cool new (Plano?) cases and at the end of the isle they have a display clearing out the VPX gear. I think to myself “looks like everyone caught on”, but out of curiosity I check it out. Nothing really jumps out at me, but they have the little “cut saw” (what other kind of saw is there?) for only $15.00.

I figure it must be an add-on with no battery, charger, etc. Nope, that’s the saw, a battery and the charger, for $15.00.

To put this in perspective, according to Amazon.com this saw MSRP’s for $114.00, and is currently available on their site for $40.19. The reviews are all over the place, but I remember hearing that of all the VPX tools, this saw was a decent one.

I spent about a week considering the saw (and the box that I was actually there to buy). I decided to buy the box, and in a moment of inspired consumerism picked up the saw as well. I figured even if it sucks, I could probably make use of the battery, charger and motor and come out ahead.

Enough with the back-story, here’s my review of the saw.

You can tell that a lot of attention went into the packaging, at least the design of it. This seems to be a trend in the consumer tool space which shouldn’t be a surprise because it’s a hallmark of most consumer-class products. Anyway the box looks nice, but is somewhat awkward to open because the whole thing is glued shut instead of using a tab/slot arrangement you would expect.

Once the box is open the interior packaging is what you would expect, organized and plain. The instruction manual (I read these for things that come with rechargeable batteries, I don’t want any excuses from the manufacturer if I end up having trouble with the battery) is the same as every other BD manual, and that’s not a compliment. It’s complete, but small and organized poorly (instructions refer to diagrams that are not on the same page as the text, etc.) it would be nice to include a “getting started” card that shows you how to start charging the battery immediately so you can then spend the 6-8 hours of charge time reading the manual.

Not that you need instructions to charge the battery. As it turns out, you plug in the charger, then plug the battery into the charger. The blinking red light is good, it means it’s charging the battery. When it’s done blinking, it’s time to play with the saw.

7.0v VPX battery in charger (right), 18v NiCd and charger (left)

The saw itself was larger than I expected and seems to be fairly solid. One complaint I have about my 18v B&D drill is that under serious torque the sides of the case feel like they are pulling out of alignment and may let loose at any moment. I haven’t had any actual problems with this, but the feeling doesn’t inspire confidence. Based on the feel of this tool (and the application), I don’t anticipate that problem here.

The saw un-boxed (SpinalTramp included to illustrate scale)

I actually did read the manual while I was waiting and even learned a thing or two, but ended up calling it a night before the batteries were charged. The next morning I slapped the pack into the saw and took it for a spin.

The saw comes with two blades, marked with “wood” and “metal” labels in text, which is nice. The blades are the same quick-change type that my jigsaw uses which is convenient as well. They are loaded and unloaded from the saw by pressing a lever and sliding the blade in or out, no tools required.

The first thing I noticed about the saw was how quiet it was, and how little vibration it produces. The best way I can describe it is that it feels and sounds like a sewing machine, and if you’ve used other reciprocating saws before, you can appreciate the contrast here.

The first thing I could find to try it out on was a short piece of quarter-round trim I had laying on the floor. The included wood blade made very short work of this piece and left a reasonably smooth edge. Next found a piece of half-inch-ish plywood and tried using the “keyholeing” technique I read about in the manual.

The idea here is to cut a hole out of the inside of the board using only the saw. I would have used a drill to punch a hole in the board first, then cut out from there, but this is apparently a common technique and thinking about it I remember seeing my father do this with a jigsaw before.

Placing the saw’s guard against the board with the blade free (not in contact with the wood), I spun it up to speed and slowly tipped the blade into the wood. When it first comes in contact with the board it jumps around a bit and requires a little more pressure than I immediately felt comfortable with but sure enough, it grabbed hold and began to burrow through the wood. Once the tip was in the saw tilted easily to a 90 degree angle and I was able to continue on in a straight line with little effort.

1/4 plywood cut with and cross grain

The second test I conducted cut across the grain of the board and required a bit more force and left more of a mess (the first cut was very clean) but this is to be expected. I imagine a less general-purpose blade could do a better job, as well as less haste on the part of the operator.

I didn’t get a chance yet to try out the metal blade, or try the saw with the assortment of blades I have available from my jigsaw. When I get around to this I’ll post an update.

Overall I think this saw performs well within the range of applications appropriate for a tool of this type. As an alternative to manual handsaws, for very light/precise demo work, low-volume jigsaw work (especially in tight quarters or awkward positions where its light weight is a significant advantage), low-speed cutting (plastics come to mind) or as a saw that you can throw in a smaller toolbox and use anywhere this tool shines. I don’t see it as a replacement for high-volume jobs that would tax the lifetime of the battery or for heavy-duty jobs more appropriate for a full-sized reciprocating saw, but for around the house or in the workshop, this is the kind of tool that might get you out of situations where other tools are too large, too heavy or too imprecise.

Is it worth $114.00? Definitely not, and for $40.00 I would still pass but for $15.00, it’s probably one of the best tools for the money that I’ve found.

IRWIN Unibit Tuesday, Jan 20 2009 

Based on a mention in a project article I read I decided to pick up one of these “unibit” (this is Irwin’s term, there may be a more generic one) for drilling thin steel cases.

IRWIN Unibit 10231

IRWIN Unibit 10231

In particular, the article mentioned that these bits help to make cleaner holes that require less deburring.  I didn’t exactly know why this might be, and I’m saving up for a nice Cobalt Steel set of bits but I was at Fleet Farm anyway and knew I’d be drilling some of this steel that same afternoon, so I decided to give it a shot.

The only brand I could find was Irwin (maybe they are the only ones making these bits?), which is fine because I’ve been satisfied with the other Irwin bits I’ve purchased, although had I known the bit was available in Cobalt maybe I would have ordered the bit online and waited (probably not, since I wasn’t sure how well it was going to work yet).  There were three bits available on the shelf, the #1, #2 and #4.  I chose the #2, which has 13 steps and can drill (cut?) holes between 1/8″ and 1/2″.  The #4 looked cool, but was a lot more and the #1 with only 6 steps, wasn’t much cheaper.

As I found out, having more steps is better if you can swing it and when I buy a Cobalt version of this bit, I’ll opt for the 20-step bit.

First I tested the bit on an Altoids tin that I keep specifically for testing this operation.  This makes it easy to compare each method/technique.  For the drill I used a Chinese bench-top drill press that got from my father.  Instead of a vice I used this cool little “fence” that he made for it to keep everything stationary, this is important because in the past when I’ve used regualar twist-bits I’ve had these little boxes ride right up the flutes and take off like a helicopter.

I opted not to use a block behind the hole.  I usually do so, because it allows me to use more pressure on the drill without denting the steel, but I wanted to see what this bit could do unassisted.

Taking my time and watching the material, the first test (to the first stop on the bit) went very well.  I took the box out of the press and examined the hole.  The denting problem was minimal if not non-existant.  I’m sure that this won’t be the case on a larger piece, but it’s good to know.  Overall the hole was very clean, with some burring on the exit side but better than a regular bit.  I think the deburring action of the bit is due to the cutter of the next step up beginning to bite which removes a little material from the entry side of the hole.

Next I took the bit down another step and then another.  The sound changes and the following holes require less effort than the first (something to note if you’re only trying to go a few steps).  By stopping the drill it’s easy to see what size the hole is and what’s next using the legend on the bit.

Once the testing was over I used the bit to drill the speaker mounting holes in a lunchbox that I’m turning into a guitar amplifier.  Overall it worked very well, I didn’t even “dimple” the steel to guide the bit (although this can be attributed as much to the use of the press as to the bit itself).  The holes required little cleanup afterward and overall I was very impressed.

Next I tried the bit freehand as the holes for the amp’s controls were going in the side of the box and it was too big to fit in my press on its side.  For these holes I used an awl to dimple the steel slightly to prevent the bit from wandering and chucked the bit up in my 18v Black & Decker cordless.

Using the variable speed control of the drill, I kept the speed low until the bit penetrated the steel.  Controlling the pressure of this drill is a lot tougher than the press and I didn’t want it to shoot through and accidentally make the hole too big.  Once the first hole size was cut however I increased the drill to maximum speed and cut the hole to size for the gain control without problems.

Drilling the remaining holes I noticed a couple of things about the bit.  The main thing is that the larger the hole, the less deburring you have to do.  If you drill just to the first stop, there is usually a big chunk of burr on the exit side of the hole, but if you keep going this falls away and leaves a very clean hole.

The second thing I noticed happened when I was drilling the many holes for the speaker grill.  I drilled the holes to the first stop but allowed the next stop to just touch the entry hole to deburr the face of the amp and while this worked, it does dimple the hole a bit.  For this application the result is favorable, giving the grill a sort of “bullet hole” look, but I could see this being a problem if you are going for flat, smooth holes.

Also I tried using the bit on the reverse side of some of the holes to try and deburr them the way the entry holes, but this didn’t work all that well and I wouldn’t recommend it, at least not in light gauge material such as this.

Overall I think this bit is a great addition to the toolbox.  It was a bit more expensive than I would have expected at about $17.00 and I imagine the Cobalt version (mine was just high speed steel) is probably twice that, but since it would get a lot of use in hard material (and I have no idea how to sharpen it), I would recommend going with the Cobalt, as well as a model with more “steps”, if you can afford it.

DropBox Wednesday, Nov 26 2008 

I found out about DropBox via John Gruber’s excellent Daring Fireball. I’ve seen dozens of these before, but I’ve really been aching for a universal home directory for years, and this want has evolved into a need as the amount of clients I serve has grown.

The DropBox Logo

The DropBox Logo

I’ll be experimenting with this in a couple of ways that I’ll detail later once the results of the tests are in. In the meantime I suggest giving it a go and if you find anything interesting I’d love for you to comment on your findings.