Sonos vs. Apple AirTunes – Using iPhone remote apps

I have been interested in creating a living room music-on-demand setup for our home for quite some time. One of my colleagues has been preaching to me that Sonos is the answer for a year or so now – but I’ve never really considered it because of it’s high cost of entry (~$999+). Recently, Sonos released a free iPhone/iPod touch remote control application. This allows a significantly less expensive entry cost, as now you only need to purchase a single Sonos ZonePlayer to get started… but I still felt that it was a be expensive (~$350)… especially when you compare it to using the AirTunes capability of the Apple AirPort express (~$99).

This past weekend he was kind enough to allow me to test out one of his Sonos ZonePlayers. The loan unit I had was a ZonePlayer ZP80, which is no longer being sold, but has been replaced with the ZP90 which now supports 802.11N. Neither the ZP80 nor ZP90 have internal amplifiers, so if you don’t have an amplifier you would need to consider the ZP120 (~$499).

So here are my brief thoughts and comments regarding the differences, pros and cons of the two solutions, and I’ll assume you already have the following (or workable equivalents):

  • Mac, or PC with Windows (I used Windows 7 RC1)
  • 802.11G/N wireless network
  • Amplifier with speakers.
  • iPhone (iPod touch will do the job too)

Apple AirTunes

What you’ll need:

Setup is rather simple, just need to ‘authorize’ the iPhone remote app to connect to our iTunes library.

Pros:

  • Much less expensive. Only need to get an Apple AirPort express (~$99 for the 802.11N version)
  • Plays Apple DRM tracks.
  • iTunes DJ – this can be great for when friends come over.

Cons:

  • Need to keep iTunes client open at all times. This can be a pain.
  • Does not “remember” what you were you were listening too between PC reboots/iTunes restarts. I found this more annoying that I thought I would.
  • No multi-room support. This doesn’t bother me much, my apartment is too small anyway.
  • Does not support many audio formats. My collection is all MP3, so… no biggie.
  • Does not provide access to some of the more popular audio streaming services, such as Rhapsody, Napster, SIRIUS, Pandora etc.

Sonos:

What you’ll need:

Pros:

  • Better remote control app than the Apple one. A bunch of little features that make it better than the Apple one:
    >See the next track coming in the ‘Now Playing’ screen.
    >Great on-the-go queue (playlist) management.
    >When you choose a track you get the option of “Play now”, “Play next”, “Add to Queue”, “Replace current queue”.
  • No need to any client applications open, you just need the PC on to allow access to the Windows file share.
  • Remembers were you were. This I really liked… even though my PC had been off, once it is back on, the ZonePlayer will start were it left off (even mid-track)
  • Multi-room support, provided you have purchased additional ZonePlayers.
  • Better audio format support (Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, WMA, AAC, MP3, Apple Lossless, and Audible formats)
  • Access to Rhapsody, Napster, SIRIUS, Pandora, Last.fm, and most terrestrial radio stations. I did not test this as most of these services are US centric – plus my broadband connection sucks for streaming content.

Cons:

  • Expensive. $350 for the ZP90 (replacement for ZP80).
  • Does not support Apple DRM tracks.

Conclusion:

I definitely enjoyed the experience of the Sonos solution more. There are many small, often unquantifiable, nuances that make it a more complete and enjoyable experience. The Apple AirTunes solution I described is workable, but not perfect.

If money was no object, then Sonos all the way, but unfortunately money is a big consideration. For now I’m going to hold onto these facts I’ve learnt – then see if I can convience myself to take the dive.

Canon S3is vs. Canon EOS 400D & EFS 17-85mm IS USM – My experiences

Earlier this year (2007) I got a Canon S3is camera, before buying this I had a very basic point and shoot camera with no manual functions. After about 6 months with the S3is I had become a very keen amateur photographer, and very rarely looked at the “auto” functions ever again. Then after 1 year with the S3is, I felt constrained by some of the limitations… so I bought a Canon EOS 400D Kit II, bundled with the EFS 17-85mm IS USM lens. So having the luxury of having both of these devices, I would like to share the pros and cons of both.

Canon PowerShot S3 IS:

Canon Powershot S3is

Canon EOS 400D & EF-S 17-85mm IS USM Kit:

Canon EOS 400D & Lens

Key specifications comparison:

  Canon S3 IS Canon EOS 400D w/ EFS 17-85mm IS USM
Max Resolution 2816 x 2112 3888 x 2592
Mega Pixels 6.0 10.1
Sensor Size 1/2.5″ (10.1mm diag) 1.8″ (45.72mm diag)
Min Focal length 36mm (6mm physical) 27.2mm (17mm physical)
Max Focal length 432mm (72mm physical) 136mm (85mm physical)
Max Aperture f/2.7-3.5 f/4-5.6
Min Aperture f/8 f/22-32
Shutter Speed 1/3200sec 1/4000sec
Crop Factor 6x 1.6x
Delay 15sec 30sec + Bulb
LCD 2.0″ Tilt-n-Twist 2.5″ Fixed
Live View Yes No
Storage SD/MMC Card CF Type I or II
Weight (inc battery) 510g 556g (without lens)
Dimensions 113 x 78 x 76 mm 127 x 94 x 65 mm (without lens)
Movie Clips Yes No

Image performance:

My time with my S3 taught me that it gives good results in outdoor, well lit area’s, but almost anything indoors is a problem. I attribute the lack of indoor performance on the S3 to it’s tiny image sensor. The S3 can take outstanding shots… as long as you manually set the ISO to 80 (100 at a push) and slow the shutter speed to compensate, and of course this only really works when the subject of your shot is static… anything that moves will cause blurring due to the longer exposure. Any ISO above 100 starts yielding very noisy results, and should only be used in an emergency.

Lets talk a bit about that sensor… it’s small… it’s as small as the sensors in subcompact cameras!… but it’s small for a reason… that 12x Optical zoom you enjoy with the S3 is only possible in such a small lens assembly with this size sensor – but I will elaborate on this a bit later. What is important here is the bigger the sensor, the more light is “seen” by the camera, hence the reason why the S3 suffers in low lighting conditions. The sensor size of the S3 is 1/2.5″ (10.1mm in diameter), where the 400D’s sensor is 1.8″ (45.7mm in diameter).. quite a difference, and guess what… it shows!

I’ve found that it is possible to get very usable results from the 400D at ISO400 (even 800 sometimes), and this is due to the fact that the sensor is so much bigger, the down side of this is that the lenses need to be much longer to get the equivalent focal lengths that the S3 is capable of.

Lens

The S3 has got a fixed lens assembly which is small, but capable of fantastic range. The actual zoom range of the S3 is 6mm to 72mm, but you need to multiply those numbers by the crop factor, of 6x – so the 35mm equivalent focal range is 36mm to 432mm. I find the short focal length of 36mm equiv quite limiting and often wish for something with more wide angle.

The aperture performance is pretty good on this lens, which allows maximum aperture of f/2.7 at the short focal lengths, and increasing to f/3.5 and the longer focal lengths. However the minimum aperture is rather disappointing, with a minimum of F/8… which is not great for landscape type shots where a deep depth of field is desired.

The 400D’s EFS 17-85mm kit lens is heavy and rather large in comparison. The actual zoom of this one is 17mm to 85mm, but again this needs to be multiplied by the crop factor of 1.6x which equals a 35mm equivalent focal range of 27.2mm to 136mm.

The speed of this lens is not that hot, the maximum aperture range is F4 to F5.6 on the short end, so to really take advantage of the low light capabilities of the larger sensor in the 400D you need a faster lens. I plan to but the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens which is pretty cheap, and will work well in low light conditions. The minimum aperture of this kit lens is nice and small, as are most DSLR lenses… so landscapes etc should not be a problem at all.

<Work in progress… will update later>