Walmart Online Shopping and Broken Promises

To get ready for winter I decided to order a Portable Buddy Heater to keep me warm if the power went out. This time instead of trusty Amazon, I ordered it through Walmart. I figured they were the underdog to Amazon and were offering “free” 2-day shipping. I say “free” because Walmart’s online price was $5 higher, obviously to cover the 2-day shipping.

Since it is the Thanksgiving holiday and I am leaving on Friday, I was happy to see Walmart would have the package to me by Wednesday 11/21. They put this date on the item page when I was checking out, the receipt they emailed me, and even on the tracking number email.

So come Wednesday and I go to check the package status, the package hadn’t even been delivered to OnTrack, the courier. The package actually shows as given to OnTrack on the DAY it was to be delivered … in Reno.

The sad thing is the same heater is in stock at local store but they don’t make it obvious on their website.  I would have simply driven there to pick it up.  They could even simply drive it to my house ON THE SAME DAY. Just imagine the customer loyalty they would have with that kind of service.

So its easy to understand why Amazon is the largest online retailer, they ship within or even before they dates they promise!

Use this link to buy the Mr. Heater Buddy from Amazon and skip supporting the shitty company called Walmart.



Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 Lens Review

This is a review of the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens for Nikon. I bought this lens with my own money for video and general photography like landscape and events. I paid $800 for it at BH Photo where they have a 4% rebate and offer it with expedited shipping.

Before this lens, I only had the 18-55mm and 55-300mm kit lenses that came with my Nikon 5100 bundle from Costco. When deciding on this lens, I was trying to pick one from Nikon 35mm f/1.8, Sigma 20mm f/1.4 ART, or Sigma 30mm f/1.4 ART. I wanted something fast so I could do night photography as well as wide-ish to capture landscapes. I wasn’t too keen on an ultra-wide-angle lens because of distortion. After looking around I decided on the Sigma 18-35mm because of TheCameraTVStore’s “It’s a bag-full of primes” comment. If I couldn’t pick one prime lens, then why not get them all?


From Sigma’s official website with some corrections.

Specification Value
Lens Construction 17 Elements in 12 Groups
Angle of View (SD1) 76.5ยบ-44.2ยบ
Number of Diaphragm Blades 9
Maximum Aperture f16
Minimum Focusing Distance 28 cm/ 11.0 in
Filter Size(mm) 72mm
Maximum Magnification 1:4.3
Dimensions(Diameter x Length) 78mmx121.0mm / 3.1in. x 4.8in.
Weight 28.6oz

First Impressions

My first impressions mirror those of other reviewers. The lens is solidly built but large and heavy with a big glass front. The focus and focal movements are heavy, like you are moving them through heavy syrup. The rings are made of rubber and that gives them a cheapish feel that I wouldn’t expect at this price range. All the movement is internal so I don’t have to worry about hitting the front when focusing on something close.

You have to be careful when handling the lens, it sticks out quite a bit and the weight gives it a good amount of momentum. This along with the big glass front makes me nervous when I’m around people or if I have to let go of the camera and let it swing by its strap around my neck.


Many people have commented that the lens is hard to focus. I suspect this is because of the lenses f/1.8 minimum aperture which results in a shallow depth of field. I have a feeling that with a big aperture the camera tries to bring everything into focus but the small depth of field renders some or most of the scene as out of focus. The user then decides the lens has focusing problems. I too had trouble with focus but I was able to work around it by setting the focus mode to single point and pushing the aperture to about f/4 for scenes with depth, like landscapes, and bumping it down to f/2 or f/1.8 when working with flatter objects.

In terms of mechanics the focusing is very quiet. I hear a soft purr when I’m holding the camera and nothing when I’m taking pictures from a few feet a way with the remote. I don’t like using continuous-servo autofocus with the kit lenses because they continuously grind, with this lens I don’t even hear it. This makes it excellent for movie making.


This lens tends to overexpose, especially in bright light or sunlight. I suspect the large aperture allows in too much light and the camera sensors can’t quite adjust the shutter speed to deal with it. I often have to adjust the exposure by -1 to -1/2 in bright light. Conversely, the exposure is excellent in the shade or when cloudy.


Once you get past the focus and exposure problems, you’ll find the lens is very sharp. Everything in focus has good detail and you won’t find the colors meshing even when you zoom in. Parts that are out of focus will, of course, not be sharp but they have a nice blurriness to them.


The bokeh on this lens is excellent. Words that describe it include ‘creamy’, ‘smooth’, and ‘buttery’. Phrases like ‘broken glass’ or ‘jagged’ do not apply.


I have an unboxing video on youtube.

Final Thoughts

Overall this is an ok lens. The pictures are excellent once it is tuned, but it is difficult to get there. The sharpness and bokeh are excellent but the big aperture makes it difficult to focus and gives it a tendency to overexpose. The lens’ weight and size make it difficult to carry and the mass makes it bang around when you are carrying while walking or hiking. I wish it had the ease of use and lightness of my 18-55mm kit lens.

For comparison, I’d rate my previous favorite lens, the 18-55mm kit lens that came with my camera, at 85% of as this lens. The kit lens is quite nice and as [](Ken Rockwell) says, its perfect and not much it can’t do well. In bright light the kit lens captures excellent images with good sharpness and detail. Those that own this lens know what I’m talking about. If you are not a professional shooting indoors (and a professional probably won’t have a crop sensor) I’d suggest sticking with the kit lens and spending the extra money on a flash to boost your indoor game along, optionally, with the Nikon 35mm f/1.8.

Other Reviews

Unlike many reviewers, I did not receive this lens for a review. I bought and paid for it with my own money. So keep in mind that reviewers that didn’t pay for their version will tend to gloss over its faults.

Sample Image

I took this picture on a cloudy and rainy day. The color reproduction is excellent and you can see I focused on the face and the rest of the body and background is pleasantly out of focus. You see how the depth of field is very shallow and how this can make it difficult to focus on a moving object. Click on the image to see the original full version to get an idea of the sharpness. At full size you can see my reflection in the eyes!

Image of dog taken with Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 lens

Briggs and Riley Torq International Carryon Review

I am a long time backpack carrier. I’ve put my stuff in one from when I got my first pack in Kindergarten to now where I use it to tote my laptop and sundries around. I even take one to the store to carry my groceries instead of the reusable bags most people prefer. For travel, backpacks are ideal. You can fit in a few days of gear and still be highly mobile. Being malleable, they generally fit under the seat and no one takes notice when someone is walking around with one.

They do have their drawbacks though. They are literally a pain to carry. My backpack puts stress on my neck and shoulders which hurt after a long day of travel. Since they are soft-sided, they don’t protect delicate items like electronics well. Especially when you put it in the overhead compartment and someone comes by and shoves in their over-sized carry-on with complete disregard for your possessions.

I decided to purchase a carry-on after a long multi-city international trip where I had to lug my backpack across many flights. I decided to adopt my travel companion’s strategy of putting his backpack in the carry-on for portability during travel. He would leave the carry-on at the hotel and load up his backpack with just the essentials when we were at our destination and getting out and about.

The Decision

I turned to the Flyertalk travel products forum figuring the seasoned travelers on that board would have good advice. While Red Oxx’s Air Boss and Mini Air Boss where highly recommended, I did not choose one because I was getting away from carrying things. Tumi came up often but so did their limited warranty. Rimowa was another option but seemed to be too heavy, too pricey, and a bit too big for me. Travelpro came up a few times as a budget brand. They were outed to have bad warranty support and were often mentioned to weasel their way out of fixing their bags even when under warranty.

Red Briggs & Riley Torq Carry-on back corner view showing zipper curve

One brand that the forum consistently praises is Briggs and Riley. Their bags are built like tanks. They have excellent support. Their warranty was simply “lifetime”. I barely saw bad feedback. Some of their product warranties even cover damage that occurs during travel. After some research I settled on the Torq® International Carry-on. It has the aforementioned warranty that covered travel damage, a separate compartment for my laptop, and at 21″x14″x9″ sized to fit most domestic and international airline limits. Oh, and it had a hardcase so Mr. Oversized bag wouldn’t squish my things.


Purchasing was easy. I bought a red one during the Briggs and Riley $50 off every $350 spent Christmas sale. I’ve heard further discounts are possible if you use an email sign-up coupon along with a sale at another retailer. I briefly thought about also purchasing a B&R backpack. After looking at the prices, I decided against it. It “shipped” the same day I ordered which means the package information was sent to Fedex and it was scheduled for pick-up. The package was sent from Santa Fe Springs, CA and I received it 4 days later in Northern Oregon.

The Suitcase

Red Briggs and Riley Torq carryon wheels

The suitcase came in a big box and was protected by a white cover. The cover is to be used when the suitcase is in storage.

The B&R Torq® is designed with style. The black of the laptop section contrasts nicely with the red, and the zipper curve at the bottom makes it look business-like. It sits apart from the mass-manufactured Samsonite flat colors with straight zips. The interior padding is unexpectedly plush and the packing guides fold out as promised. I like how the handle mechanism is heavily padded to keep the inside of the suitcase flat which helps keep my clothes wrinkle free. The base of the case expands down to between the wheels which gives it a low center of gravity. The rolling is light and easy and the suitcase pivots nicely. The small size lends to easy rolling down airplane aisles and you can maneuver it overhead without risk of hurting someone. I love the fact that it measures exactly what B&R lists on its site – 21x14x7 inches.

This carry-on does get some looks. The check-in agent gave it a good look on a recent flight from Portland. The Alaska Airlines Board Room Lounge agent gave me a nice smile and was friendly instead of display the normal business-like demeanor. And the passenger that was one seat up from me was giving it side glances while we were waiting to de-plane. She had a Tumi bag so she probably knew with what I was rolling. I feel like I’m in an exclusive club when I travel with this case. This is the carry-on to get if you want to blend in with the business folks and appear to be in the know.

Red Briggs and Riley Torq carryon laptop pocket hinge details with closeup

While it has the aura of sophistication, the Torq® feels moderately flimsy. I think it is because of the trade-offs to keep the weight low. The sides of the case are not rigid and flex when I put weight on them. While the individual pieces are solid, the joints of the handles click and clack. The zipper looks weak – it does not have anything like the size, feel, or strength of Red Oxx’s #10 zippers. It is a small zipper like one you’d find on a clearance bomber jacket from the Men’s Warehouse. Only time will tell if the suitcase can stand up to the rigors of travel. I am not concerned because of the B&R reputation and their warranty.

As many people have pointed out, the laptop/tablet pocket is on the small side and is more of a tablet and less of a laptop pocket. Having said that, thought, it fits my Lenovo Yoga 12 ThinkPad. It is a tight fit though. The pocket has hard protection on all sides, even on the inside. However, the sides flex under weight and so I wouldn’t check it with my laptop inside.

Red Briggs and Riley Torq carryon wheel well closeup


There isn’t much room for improvement with the Torq®. The sides could be more rigid but I suppose that is a trade-off with the weight. They could have put a handle on the bottom to make it easier to pull when it arrives wheels first. But that may interfere with the low center of gravity. They could have inset the handle into the bottom, but I guess we are quibbling over small details here.

Red Briggs and Riley Torq carryon wheel detail showing logo and closeup

Close-up of the Briggs & Riley Torq Carry-on handle

Red Briggs and Riley Torq carryon zippers curve

Manfrotto BeFree Carbon Fiber Tripod Review

I bought the Manfrotto BeFree Carbon Fiber Tripod to use with my Nikon D5100 for outdoor and indoor video and photography. It is a nice tripod and a decent deal if you can get it on sale for less than its list price.

I highly recommend that you consider the aluminum version. You’ll easily save $100 to $150 for a about 0.5lb increase in weight and no change in any other specification. The head, body, and base plate are already made of aluminum on both – the only difference is in the legs.

Quick Specs

Category Carbon Fiber Aluminum
Weight 2.4lbs 3lbs
Leg Material Carbon Fiber Aluminum
Max Load 8.8lbs
Max Height 56.7”
Minimum Height 13.4”
Folded Height 15.8”
Head and Body Material Aluminum


The BeFree Carbon Fiber Tripod is very popular and highly recommended but I’ve found that it is not a no-compromises tripod. Typical with things built to a price point it has its pros and cons.


  • It is light and compact – The BeFree only weights 2.4lbs. It folds up really small, is incredibly light, and I can take it on long hikes without it weighing me down.

  • It’s build solid. It does have some wobble at full extension is stable at minimum extension. The heads locks down tight and the center column doesn’t wobble. The fact that the legs are carbon fiber leads me to my next point …

  • The legs are made of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is light, it won’t rust or corrode, and it naturally dampens vibrations. They even make racecars out of it!

  • Unlike cheaper tripods, spare parts are easily available. This tripod is considered to be premium and, including the aluminum version, 100s of thousands have been sold. This means that parts are easily available. You can easily buy them directly from Manfrotto or salvage them from older tripods.


  • The bag it comes with is flimsy. The zipper feels cheap and I can see the bag deforming where the handle connects to it just after a few trips. They really should have spent a few more dollars to make a nice denier nylon carrying case.

  • The BeFree is wobbly when fully extended even though it is made from carbon fiber. It doesn’t have spiked feet or a hook to hang a bag off for stability. It will wobble even in light wind and shooting a timelapse with a reasonable zoom lens will make you motion sick.

  • The tripod is compact but not that compact – It is not usable as a tabletop tripod because even at minimum extension the legs splay too far wide. It does have the capability to flip the center column and mount the camera between the legs. However this results in a flipped picture and the legs still take up a considerable amount of space. This makes taking table top un-boxing and review videos difficult.

  • Although it is branded the ‘Carbon Fiber“, only the legs are carbon fiber. The rest of the tripod – the center column, the head, the base plate, and the leg connectors – are all aluminum. It really should be called the BeFree with carbon fiber legs.

  • The base plate doesn’t have a coin slot to unscrew it. It just has a somewhat flimsy handle that I feel will break off after some use.

  • The baseplate isn’t perfectly flat, it has a slight edge to it on the corners which makes the camera tilt over on a flat surface – it really could be made more stable. I hesitate to remove the baseplate every time I take my camera off the tripod because like I mentioned above, it looks like the screw handle will break off after some use.

  • Along similar lines, the baseplate has hard edges and pointy corners. I hesitate to put it table surfaces to avoid scratches. Rubberizing the base of the baseplate would have made sense but again it seems like there was a price point they wanted to hit.

Final Thoughts

The Manfrotto BeFree is an excellent travel tripod. It is compact, sturdy, well-built but sacrifices stability and has been built to a price point resulting in some compromises. If you can handle a 1/2lb increase in weight then I’d recommend the aluminum version. Except for the legs, there is no difference in specification between the aluminum and carbon-fiber versions and the price difference is substantial at around $150.

Unboxing Video

Intel Broadwell NUC Kit NUC5i7RYH Review

This is a review of the Intel Broadwell NUC Kit NUC5i7RYH which I unbox here and build here.

It is not quite a production ready system. I’ve tried to like it but it and Intel’s actions are so broken that it is hard to do.

The fan ramps up every time I do anything slightly demanding. Open a browser window -> Fan ramps up. Start playing a video -> Fan ramps up. It is definitely not a HTPC. More of a HT NOT PC.

Lids – Intel promised customized NUC lids. They even demonstrated them at CES and said we’d be able to buy them soon. Yet you can’t buy one anywhere, all we have is a bunch of specifications in a useless pdf file. I could make my own specifications and not have a lid, their specifications are useless to me!

Talking of lids – the NUC has USB and NFC headers on the motherboard on the inside but no way to bring them out … completely useless. I’d have to drill a hole in the bottom!

Most of the time when I try to edit video using Da Vinci Pro I get a VIDEO_TDR_FAILURE blue screen of death. Apparently the BSOD happens because Intel’s own video driver crashes on its own hardware! I should not have to deal with this on a so-called production ready system.

Once you add up the prices, NUC at $450, 128GB SSD at $100, 8 GB RAM at $30, and a legit copy of Windows at $120; you end up at $700 which is Apple Mac Mini territory. The mac comes fully assembled with a stable OS, not crashing video drivers, free upgrades to newer OSs, as well as easy to use movie and photo editing software – stuff you have to buy separately with the NUC. This is not a system for enthusiasts, it is a system for ripping off enthusiasts!

The so called Core i7 is not a real Core i7 but rather an ultrabook Core i7. Its like putting a go-cart engine in a regular car. It has about as much power too. Try playing a couple videos and editing another video, the fan ramps up to the max and if you’re lucky it won’t crash. Why not do proper heat sinking (maybe a heatsink lid!?) and put in a real i7?

The sleep and monitor powerdown features are horrible. It simply doesn’t go into sleep – most days I have to shut it down when I leave. What is the point of a sleep feature that never works? I have the monitor connected through an HDMI cable, the sound stops working every-time it puts the monitor to standby. I have to go through the windows sounds debug flow just to turn them back on and get this, it comes back with a ‘your speakers aren’t plugged in’ message. Yeah, they were magically unplugged when the screen went to sleep.

The screw holding the M2 drive in place is so small it seems it was designed for ants. I dropped it while trying to screw in my drive and had to take apart the whole thing just to get it back out. I’m glad it fell into the system and not outside, I’d never have found the screw again!

Luckily for Intel, they’ll soon move on to the next horrible enthusiast system promising new features and a new batch of frustrated users rendering this review useless.

Why Is Adafruit So Damn Expensive

Adafruit is an online store synonymous with the word maker. They sell electronic parts and kits to make gadgets that in most cases you can buy fully built. For example their MintyBoost is a $20 AA to USB charger you make yourself and it doesn’t work on all phones. For $5, You can buy an already-assembled similar gadget on Ebay (screenshot).

Another example is this $10 WiFi adapter designed to work with Linux systems like the Raspberry Pi and the BeagleBone Black. A quick search on Ebay for the chipset, 8188CUS, shows one for about $3 including shipping. With Adafruit you pay extra for shipping which starts at around $5.

I understand that Adafruit has to make a profit and, unlike most Ebay sellers, has fast shipping with easy returns and exchanges. However, that doesn’t justify 3x – 4x markups. If an Ebay item does not work as advertised then I’d simply order another one, it is very unlikely I’d get 3 or 4 bad ones in a row. Plus the threat of a PayPal charge-back coupled a bad review and subsequent loss in sales keeps most Ebay sellers honest.

So how can the frugal semi-literate techie work around these incredibly high markups?

Look on Ebay. Find the actual part number and search for it on Ebay. You’ll be surprised at what you find. Ebay sellers often include shipping and sometimes throw in extras. For example right now Adafruit has the Raspberry Pi 2 for $40. The Ebay seller loverpi has the Pi 2 for **$38 **(screenshot), with two heatsinks for overclocking, a two year warranty, and includes shipping.

Make your own. Judicious reverse engineering often reveals what is on an Adafruit board and it helps that they open-source many of their designs. Building them is somewhat tricky – many of Adafruit’s PCBs can be replicated on a prototype board. For PCB designs under 10x10cm you can easily get 10 PCBs through DirtyPcbs at $15 for 5x5cm or $25 for 10x10cm.

Find alternatives. Adafruit has some neat stuff. For example this potentiometer with a big knob is nice. But, Ebay seller has 10 potentiometers for $1 with free shipping (screenshot). You could have a 90% fail rate and still come out ahead. For that price I’ll get a tiny screwdriver set from the dollar store to turn that screw!

AAA goes from service to up-selling

Just a few days ago I returned from a short trip to find my car battery dead. Instead of getting out my jumper cables, I decided to call AAA with whom I have a Plus membership.

Calling them to request a jump-start was simple and they quickly dispatched a tow truck. I’ve been a member since 2002 but have rarely had to call them. So I was pleasantly surprised when they followed up with a text message with a link to a map which showed the location of the AAA truck in real-time. They even have an app I can use to request assistance without calling.

Once the tow-truck driver arrived he quickly jump-started my car and at this point I expected him to give me some advice about being careful and then leaving. However he started taking pictures of my battery. I asked him why he was taking pictures and, instead of responding, he put on a smirk and ignored me.

I’m surprised that AAA has removed being polite from their training. He then hooked up a device to my car which I later found out was a B2QTech Battery Tester. He took some measurements and came around to me and told me that my battery was on the verge of dying and that I should buy a battery he just happened to have in his truck.

I declined his offer knowing that AAA would overcharge me for a $40 battery and the 10 minutes of labor it would take to replace the battery. As a parting gift the technician emailed me a [B2QTech Battery Test Report ( The so-called “report” looks completely bogus considering the battery was dead just a few minutes ago. Of course the battery is going to be under charged and in “poor health” right when it has been dead for a while.

I’m really surprised that AAA now trains its drivers to up-sell the customer and treat them with rudeness. I’ve kept my AAA membership for more than 14 years because they’ve taken care of me in the past and given me peace of mind knowing they’d take care of me if I got stuck. There are now many alternatives out there and it is in our best interest to keep them in mind.