First flights with the DJI Phantom 3 Professional quadcopter review

Drones/quadcopters are like the perfect synergy of my love for photography and technology. I treated myself to a DJI Phantom 3 Professional and it is easily one of the best gadgets I’ve owned for a long time (sorry Google Glass and Apple Watch).

Recent generations of quadcopters (people don’t really like the word drones) have made flying so much simpler and safer so. Combined with the advancements in GPS, sensors, smartphones and lithium ion batteries, it has become far more accessible than the remote controlled planes and helicopters of decades past.

The DJI Phantom is one of the more popular brands of quadcopters for photography purposes, the other being the Parrot Bebop but its fixed camera frame without a gimbal severely limits its photographic potential.


Out of the box, the Phantom 3 Professional is not much wider or heavier than most laptops (at about 1.2kg). But don’t let its size fool you, this thing can fly fast and high with almost perfect levelling stability (of course the racing drones are more agile).

There is a bit of a learning curve to get comfortable with the control layout, various special commands, calibration and startup procedures (which performed incorrectly could cause the craft to drop out of the sky), but nothing any tech savvy user shouldn’t be able to figure out in a day.

From ground level, it can reach the maximum 400ft/120m altitude (for hobby operators in Australian controlled airspace) in less 30 seconds. While it’s in the air, it remained pretty much on the spot with winds of around 20km/h, if you don’t touch a thing.


Four motors and blades produce a surprising amount of thrust that lets you maneuver it any direction with so much acceleration that I had to manually reduce the remote control’s sensitivity for more practical videos.

Up close, it’s definitely not discreet. Not only does it audibly make many loud beeps during its systems initialisation but when the blades are spinning, it sounds like a hovering hairdryer. However at a distance of about 30 meters (which is the recommended safe distance from other people and property in Australia), it is only subtly noticeable.

Of course with great power comes with even greater battery demands. I was able to get around 20 minutes of flying time on each battery which includes the roughly 5 minutes of safety buffer for return-to-home which is a safety function that can automatically fly the craft back to the takeoff position at critical battery levels. A second battery is pretty much required for any practical uses.

Controlling the quadcopter is a remote control that is remarkably efficient at 2.4ghz wireless transmissions over considerable distances. I was able to control and see the live video feed over 1km line-of-sight (the spec distance is up to 5km in FCC mode).

It connects to an iPhone or Android over USB cable to present the video feed along with telemetry data with the dedicated DJI app. Although the craft can technically be piloted without the app, there’s a lot of useful information and functionality that makes it pretty much essential.


The app is also an enabler for some advanced “intelligent” flight modes which can semi-autonomously control the craft for some common maneuvers such as following the operator, circling a point and flying to defined waypoints.

There are also third party apps enabled by the SDK that provide even more refine semi-autonomous functions such as focusing the camera on a point while having full flight controls. The two most popular apps (Autopilot and Airnest) are two of the most expensive apps I’ve ever bought.


Of course, the hallmark feature of the Phantom 3 Professional is the built-in 4K-video camera and gimbal which produces awe-inspiring 12MP photos with very little effort. It outputs 60Mbit bitrate UHD (4096×2160) at 24/25fps, 4K (3840×2160) at 24/25/30fps and 1080p at up to 60fps.

The camera on this system is actually the same camera DJI has on their professional-grade Inspire 1 quadcopter at 3x the price (the biggest difference is that the Inspire 1 has retractable feet so the camera can rotate freely, whereas the Phantom 3 must rotate the craft). It also captures in DNG RAW still format and LOG-color videos for professional color grading which takes some time and effort to post-process, but the results are worth it.

Take a look at these photos and video I captured last weekend:




Unfortunately, like the GoPro, the camera has a fixed aperture lens which means the shutter speed can get ridiculously high on a bright and sunny day so a neutral-density filter is required to capture smoother cinematic-like video.

When it comes to the actual flying, the rules are a lot harder to understand than the controls. As one of my trained pilot friends joked, 90% of pilot discussions is about the regulations and only 10% is about flying.

Of course it doesn’t help that silly people have done dangerous things with remotely controlled aircrafts of all shapes and sizes, now there’s some pretty easy to understand guidelines in most countries now surrounding recreational unmanned aircrafts. However there’s still quite a bit open to interpretation, which is why you have to dig deeper into the actual laws and regulations.

I’ve already spent half a dozen nights reading and re-reading the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations Part 101, emailing the Civil Aviation authority for clarifications, and researching airspace and airport maps and I’ve only begun to understand the actual regulations in place for what is and is not allowed which is quite a bit more explicit and complete than the generalised guidelines. I would highly recommend anyone who is looking to fly in Australia to do the same.

The industry has also been pretty good at proactively adding safety features and limitations to its products to prevent dangerous and illegal activities. I expect the next generation of quadcopters to adopt many more sensors for obstacle avoidance so that even user-caused accidents like flying into people, property and objects can be prevented.


If you’re somewhat serious about photography, then I highly recommend the DJI Phantom 3 Professional as a treat for the holidays. It beats the hell out of a selfie stick. Not only is it fun and simple to fly, it captures professional-grade photos and videos with very little effort. And like prosumer photography, prepare to spend a lot of money on accessories.


Hands on with Telstra TV: rebadged Roku for Aussies

When it comes to home entertainment technologies, Australia is playing a bit of a catch up. Netflix having just launched here less than 6 months ago and many new local streaming providers soon-after, Aussies are still finding their way around streaming entertainment services and devices.

One recently launched device is the Telstra TV, a rebadged third-generation Roku 2 set top box for Telstra’s Bigpond broadband customers.

There’s been some confusion to what Telstra TV actually is. It’s not a new streaming service (Telstra already has two, Bigpond Movies and Presto) and it’s not a replacement for Foxtel cable TV.

All it is, is a hardware device that connects to your TV and streams videos from third-party services. In fact, it’s a rebadged version of the Roku 2 standalone streaming player previously only sold in the US. Don’t worry, the little purple “Roku powered” tag on both the box and remote constantly reminds you in case you forget.

Out of the box, it’s a really simple product. It comes with a set top box, a remote, power plug, a HDMI cable and some very light reading material.

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Since the third-generation Roku 2 (2720) was originally released in 2013 (and actually discontinued in April 2015), both the hardware and remote is starting to show its age.

The set top box is reasonably small, light and stylish enough to place on your TV which is very important since the remote is IR-based (not Bluetooth) so you have to point directly at it. It’s roughly the same size as the older Apple TV and a bit smaller than the new Apple TV.

Speaking of the remote, although I can appreciate its simplicity with only a handful of buttons but boy does it look dated. It’s shaped like a capsule which means it’s easy to spot and won’t fall into the abyss of the couch, but it also feels unnecessarily clunky.


Plugging in and setting up was surprisingly simple. After you connect to the Wifi network, you use a PC or mobile to activate your device and tie it to a Telstra account by entering the code displayed on the TV, saving you the pain of typing in emails and passwords with the onscreen keyboard and remote (never a good experience).

After activating you also get access to $15 credit on Bigpond Movies and 3 month subscription to Presto as a welcoming gift to stream some movies and TV shows for free.

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A system update and a few app updates later, it’s all ready to go. From the home screen, you have access to the default apps including Bigpond Movies, Presto, Stan (coming soon), Netflix, Yahoo7, SBS On Demand, Channel 9 Jumpin and more.


Additional apps can be installed from the “Telstra TV Apps Store”. Unfortunately this is not the US Roku Store which has over 2500 apps and 60 games. At the time of writing, there were only 15 apps in the Telstra TV App Store which included YouTube, the Roku Media Player to access media on a USB device, TuneIn, Wall Street Journal Video, Vimeo, GoPro and etc. Useful third party apps such as Plex are notably missing. Telstra claims more apps will be coming however.




The UI is responsive and straightforward to navigate for a TV experience, but there’s not a lot of depth. Most apps lets you browse featured content on the home-screen, lets you find specific content in a search screen and browse for content by categories or genres.

Streaming video from Netflix and Bigpond Movies only took a few seconds to start but the quality is a bit jarring. Although the Telstra TV supports 1080p, videos from Netflix or Bigpond Movies didn’t look quite 1080p with subtle blocking and colour dithering. (I’m not 100% sure whether this is caused by the streaming services or the device)

In conclusion, Telstra TV gives you a simple and no-frills way to watch Netflix, Bigpond Movies, Presto, SBS On Demand and other popular Aussie streaming services on a TV, nothing too different from what most modern Smart TVs would already offer.

With the new Chromecast and fourth-generation Apple TV on the horizon, Telstra TV is unfortunately a generation or two behind in terms of the apps ecosystem and user experience.

If you’re getting Telstra TV free as part of a new Bigpond bundle contract, then it’s a good enough way to stream movies and TV shows on a TV without apps. But don’t go out of your way to buy one for $109.


Entering the cone of silence with Bose QC25 noise-cancelling headphones

I listen to a lot of podcasts, audiobooks and music on my daily commutes. I have been content with generic headphones for as long as I’ve owned phones and media players. I’ve always thought noise-cancelling headphones were a luxury only for long international flights, it never occurred to me just how big of a difference they can make even for a simple train trip.

I got my ears on a pair of Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones for review a couple of weeks ago and now I can’t go back. The QC25 is like having my own portable cone of silence at the flick of a switch. (I’m a big fan of Get Smart)




The headphones come in a carrying case, two colors (black and white) and two models: one made for Apple devices; and another made for Android devices. There’s no difference except the inline microphone & remote are optimized for each platform. In fact I suspect because it uses a standard 3.5mm TRRS conductor, it should be cross-compatiable with any modern smartphone.

The design and build of the QC25 feels solid and sturdy but weighs just 200 grams. The retractable headband is easy to adjust and holds its place firmly with thin etched slots. The rotatable hinges that allow the headphones to be folded into itself is metallic and covers the cord so it can’t be damaged. I throw these in my computer bag without the case day after day and they still look like new.


The QC25 is one of the most comfortable over-ear headphones I’ve ever tried. Whereas some over-ear headphones I’ve tried actually clips my earlobes (and bruising them after extended use), the QC25’s elongated oval cups cover well-over the entire ear. The thick leather cushions form a tight seal around the ears, but it’s soft enough it doesn’t feel like it’s pressing hard against you.

As a subtle design touch, the letters “L” and “R” is textured on the fabric inside the cups making it dead simple to identify the correct orientation. (No you can’t wear it backwards)

I don’t claim to be an audiophile so I won’t bother with making up words to describe the bass, treble or any other technicality of sound, I’ll just say it sounds pretty good to me. What’s more important however is what sounds are not there, and that is where this headphone really shines.

Turning on the active noise cancellation is as simple as the flick of a switch on the right cup and it momentarily disables sound output, but the effect is instantly noticeable even without any audio being played.

Gone are the thumps of train wheels on train tracks, the high-pitched whine from electric train inverter, the over-enthusiastic passengers who love to chat and the roars of a diesel engine on a bus? Gone. You can still make out beeps of a train door closing, someone talking directly to you and the barks of a dog, but it’s significantly quieter. This headphone has been systematically rated as one of the best noise cancelling technologies available today and I don’t doubt that.

It’s not so much music or podcasts sound better with noise cancellation, but it’s all the extra details you hear when there’s no noise covering it up.

As a weird side effect, the pounding sound of your feet hitting the ground walking or running is accentuate so I don’t think noise cancelling headphones are ideal for jogging. The wind blowing towards you into the noise cancelling microphones also make for an unpleasant buffer sound.

Thankfully the headphones can be used like a normal pair of headphones if the battery runs out or you simply don’t want noise cancellation. Each battery is rated for 35 hours of noise-cancelled listening and so far I’ve only drained one by leaving it on overnight which can be a bummer.


The worst thing about the QC25 is the unnecessary long cable – it’s roughly 50% longer than Apple’s Earpod cables. I know it’s an odd thing to say about a pair of headphones, but the dangling cable is a real nuisance. It flails about when I’m walking and I have to tuck a good portion of it in my pocket where the magical knot-fairy does its best work. There’s scientific proof longer cables have a higher knot probability.

In conclusion, this pair of headphones is a sizeable investment at a retail price of AUD$399/USD$299.

If you do a lot of listening out and about on public transport and especially on planes, the QC25 seems to be the state-of-the-art for active noise cancellation. Other reviews seem to suggest there are higher quality sounding headphones at this price range on the market, but I’ve fallen in love with listening in peace.

Disclosure: Bose provided the QC25 headphones for free as a gift.


Hands-on with the Sea-Doo Spark: the more fun and less cost jetski

I haven’t had so much fun and muscle-aches reviewing anything before.

I don’t normally review jetskis but I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to check out the Sea-Doo Spark, a new affordable entry-level jetski half the price of most personal watercrafts on the market. Don’t let the size and price fool you though, it’s as much adrenaline rushing fun as the big brother, if not a little bit more.

I’ve actually owned a Sea-Doo GTX 215 jetski for about 2 years. The Spark caught my attention because you could buy two for price of a bigger one, and jetskis are always more fun to drive than ride.


Compared to a typical Sea-Doo jetski, the Spark is around 25% smaller and 50% lighter. This is made possible by a new composite polypropylene and fibreglass “Polytec” material. It’s so strong and durable the entire frame and hull is just two moulded pieces held together by a set of bolts, similar to the unibody concept for laptops.

Powering the Spark is a new fuel efficient engine available in 60 and 90 horsepower variants (I tested the 90hp model). Even though this is only half the horsepower of traditional jetski engines, the incredible power to weight ratio means you actually get better acceleration than bigger brothers. It’s like a Tesla of the sea.



What it gains in acceleration it loses slightly in top speed. I peaked at about 80km/h (50mph) whereas the bigger ones can do 100km/h (65mph). Of course unless you’re racing jetskis, your arms and legs will fatigue out much sooner than the jetski.

The engine is also more economical, using less unleaded petrol than the bigger models going the same distance. It takes about $40 to fill up a full tank and I only used half a tank for roughly 3 hours of riding.

Unfortunately something’s going to give with compact size and comfort isn’t a strong point of the Spark. Whereas you’ll find wide cushioned seats on larger jetskis and even active suspension to soften out the bumps, the slimmer and firmer seat on the Spark makes rough waves and landing those high jumps a lot tougher on the bottom. That is if going slower isn’t your thing.

The Spark also comes in 2-seat and 3-seat models that vary slightly in length (I tested the 3-seat). Even though you could fit 2 full-size adults on the 3-seater, it’s not the most comfortable ride for the passenger at speed. The Spark is most fun with just one.


Sea-Doo has also made available the latest jetski technologies in the Spark: fly-by-wire throttle control, GPS speedo, closed loop cooling. The most important of which is Sea-Doo’s intelligent brake and reverse (iBR).

By a simple squeeze of the brake lever on the left handlebar, you can come to a dead stop from top speed in about 2 seconds. What’s a safety feature is also quite fun – the G-force from 80km/h to 0 on water makes a bit of a splash. The same function also allows you to reverse making it as easy to maneuver as a tiny car, super convenient for docking at the boat ramp.


Speaking of maneuverability, the Spark’s agility is hard to beat. Using the Sports throttle mode, you can make turns so sharp and accelerate so quickly that you can quite easily throw yourself off if you’re not gripping firmly. And in the event you do fall off, the Spark clip-on key will detach and automatically turn the engine off.


Simply put, riding a jetski is some of the most exhilarating fun I’ve ever had. With the Sea-Doo Spark, it’s now more affordable than ever to own one. Starting at a base price of AUD$7,850 going up to about AUD$10,000 if you add the higher-performance engine and brake system (a must in my opinion), it’s a great little toy for any revheads on water and now more affordable than ever.

A lot of water was splashed in the making of this review.


Microsoft .NET’s JPEG encoder makes crappy JPEGs

Microsoft .NET has been making quite a bit of headway in the developer community recently with both the open source efforts and the upcoming ASP.NET 5 modern web framework. With so much attention on making .NET a “hip” platform (and hopefully breaking into the startup ecosystem), I would like to draw attention to a very frustrating problem that I hope the .NET team can address, .NET produces pretty poor quality JPEGs.

Now if this were some obscure .NET function that hardly anyone uses I wouldn’t care as much, but JPEGs are an integral part of most desktop, mobile softwares and web services today. Granted PNGs and SVGs have become common for UI graphics, but JPEG is still the leading compressed image format used in uploaded avatars and photos (I look forward to the day WebP and BGP is the norm).

I like paying attention to detail, so it horrifies me just how much detail is lost through the Microsoft .NET JPEG encoder. There’s no better way to explain this than to show examples.

I first ran into this problem a few months ago when I was working with images in a podcast RSS feed. I was simply grabbing an online image, resizing it and then saving a JPEG file for local caching. A simple image optimization workflow that almost every modern app will do.

This was the image I was working with. (PNG lossless, 147KB)


And this is what happens after I save it as a JPEG in .NET. (JPEG 100% quality, 70.2KB)


To the untrained eye, they might look not too different, but I invite you to look closer especially around the letters. Here’s the two side by side zoomed in.


Now I know what you’re thinking. Surely that’s just JPEG compression right? Well Photoshop’s JPEG encoder handles it fine. (JPEG 100% quality, 83.7KB)


The thing about JPEG encoding is that it is all proprietary. You can encode JPEG many different ways and it will produce different files or varying fidelity and compression size. Yes they all have a “quality” parameter, but the same “quality” across two apps won’t produce the same result. (In my own testing, the Adobe Photoshop JPEG encoder seems to be the state-of-the-art.)

To cut a long story short, my workaround was to save the file as a PNG (which .NET is quite capable of) and then use the ImageMagick Windows command-line executable to convert it to a JPEG file. The result is worth the hassle. (JPEG 90%, 38.5KB).


Here’s the before and after comparison between .NET’s JPEG and ImageMagick’s JPEG with a 55% size saving (38.5KB vs. 70.2KB). I don’t think I need to tell you which one is which.


My advice to any .NET developer is to avoid the built-in JPEG encoder – the quality is worse and the file size is larger than what it should be. Combined with the fact that almost all .NET best practices and image processing libraries (including the cool relies on the .NET JPEG encoder, I imagine this to be a pretty widespread issue.

I’m actually not the first person to notice this. A StackOverflow answer and blog post (images no longer work) by Chris Moschini also refers to this issue.

Perhaps with a bit of encouragement the Microsoft .NET team can fix this for .NET 2015 (it is not fixed in .NET Framework 4.6 Preview). Won’t somebody please think of the pixels?


Escaping my first escape room: a real life point and click adventure

Escape room games seems to be popping up everywhere around the world. In Melbourne alone there are at least half a dozen companies now offering one or more puzzle rooms. Some appear to be horror themed while most take the premise of a detective story.

Recently I was invited by Escape Hunt in Melbourne to check out what the hype around escape rooms was all about.

When you think about it, escape rooms are kind of weird. You voluntarily pay money to go inside an enclosed space with the sole purpose of trying to come back out. Having said that, for the same reason why “escape the room” computer games are entertaining, it’s the process of some 60 minute of puzzle solving that’s actually very rewarding.

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A group of friends and I attempted “Abduction in the Graveyard”, one of the three puzzles available. We were provided a brief backstory together with character names and roles based on the world of Sherlock Holmes.

It’s a lie as good as Santa Claus – all pretty much useless but all in good fun.

Before going in, sixty minutes in a single room didn’t sound challenging enough, but when the LED clock high in the ceiling starts ticking down, there’s actually real pressure in the group to save the fictional girl from the kidnapper who threatens her life. Admittedly in this particular story there’s no real reason to “escape”, we’re just very financially-attached detectives.

Puzzles led to clues, clues led to more puzzles. This process repeats over and over, becoming more elaborate and integrating more game mechanics that you pick up over time. (Just like the difficulty progression of a computer adventure game).

The puzzles and props included but is not limited to physical, auditory, visual, mathematical, and it would be criminal not to have a UV puzzles. If only the kidnappers actually invested their money instead of buying elaborate combination locks, maybe they wouldn’t need to abduct people for ransom.

While we conquered many challenges in a reasonable time, a small handful actually challenged the group’s collective problem solving. In two occasions, a well-timed hint from the intercom with the game master (spectating through CCTV cameras) was necessary to steer us in the right direction. In the end, our group’s first ever attempt took 63 minutes, a tad slower than average.

I must admit there were real moments of frustration but also real moments of accomplishment with your friends. The price is admission is a bit higher than your typical casual entertainment, say the price of a movie ticket, but it was a much more memorable experience.

I can’t wait to get locked in another room.

Disclosure: The game my friends and I participated in was provided for free by Escape Hunt Melbourne.