Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Goods En Route: Accessories & Etsy

After my latest Timex Weekender acquisition (which has since expanded to the black and grey dialed versions, currently on their way from Amazon), I decided to turn my consumer's eye toward accessories like leather bracelets and rings.  Etsy proved to be a copious source for such things, and I have several items on their way.

The first thing I looked for was a leather bracelet that could complement the members of my watch box.  This purpose imposed certain criteria: no magnetic closures (lest the bracelet magnetize the watch) and a minimal amount of metallic hardware (to minimize the potential for nicking and scratching).  I'd spent somewhat ludicrous amounts of money on a couple of bespoke leather cuffs from Canadian leather workers Palmer & Sons, which were nice, but far too large now that my wrist has shrunk to a 6-inch circumference.  (A nice gentleman on eBay inherited my cuffs at a substantial discount.)  Etsy provided a number of vendors with attractive offerings, and I settled on Dstello, a Spain-based merchant who nevertheless offers free U.S. shipping.

I purchased a simple, thick brown leather bracelet with a hook closure, and a custom tweaked version of their blue leather bracelet with the antique-gold hardware swapped out for silver tone.  Despite the bracelets being tailored to my 16cm requirements, I received a shipment notification only a day later, and should receive them in 1-2 weeks.  A review will follow swiftly thereafter.

I then turned to titanium rings, and found several with a lacquered blue band that I thought was very attractive.  The problem, however, was that I remain unsure of my ring size, which has dwindled from the 7.5 I used to be when I purchased my college class ring.  I should be somewhere between a 7 and a 7.25, and decided the resolve the matter by availing myself of a clearance-priced size 7 from the titaniumknights boutique.  (It's similar to the one at the top of this post, but slightly thinner, at 6mm wide as opposed to the 8mm pictured.)  With free shipping, the ring should turn out to be an excellent bargain, presuming my size gambit pays off.  But if it doesn't, then at least I'll know what size to order when I go for the blue-banded one, from ClassicTitanium, that originally caught my eye.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Buying Computers: Building Your Own Rig

My main computer is a desktop that I put together myself with economy parts about two to three years ago.  Even then, the parts were somewhat dated - hence the discounted price.  Of my original set up, the most expensive component was the hard drive, a 640GB one at $79.  The Pentium Dual-Core 2.0 Ghz processor was $69, and the Asus motherboard was an open-box special at $75.  The total cost for the computer itself (I'd already picked up a 24" monitor that I'd been using with my laptop at the time) was less than $500.  Today, with a subsequent upgrade to a 128GB SSD, a Radeon 5600HD, and having overclocked the CPU to a stable and relatively cool 2.8 Ghz, my budget build handles everything I can throw at it, from large illustration files in Photoshop to The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim . . . all the while powering three screens.

Needless to say, for my first foray into assemble-it-yourself computing, I'm very satisfied.  The key to my success in building my own rig wasn't my personal knowledge of the hardware I choose (I had none) or extensive experience with computer assembly (beyond a good intuitive grasp of how things work, there was no experience to speak of).  No, I managed to succeed in the sometimes difficult realm of self assembly by relying on the advice of experts and knowing where to source information and user experiences I could count on.

For the basic framework of my rig, I looked to an article on building your own budget PC.  As the featured components, I knew that they had to be extremely compatible with one another and a good benchmark for ideal performance levels.  I then searched for various computer forums - being one of them - with sections and members who make a hobby of building their own rigs, and searched for posts about the components in question, or other similar components that I'd considered as substitutes.  (Case in point: the Pentium Dual-Core I choose was older, slower, and cheaper than the Core Duo processor the author suggested, but I chose it because of its sterling reputation as an overclock-friendly CPU.  As my own machine's 2.8 Ghz operating speed attests, that reputation is well-earned.)

There's a certain amount of risk inherent to building your own rig.  There's no customer support safety net if one of your components doesn't work well with the others, beyond its original manufacturer's warranty or the return policy of your vendor.  But if you do your homework and purchase from vendors with a good return policy, you can get a system that meets or exceeds your own personal needs at a fraction of the cost of what it might cost you to go the prebuilt route.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's On Amazon: Western Digital WD TV Live Streaming Media Player - WDBHG70000NBK-HESN

These days, most the media I watch these days is on my computer in one of the usual video file formats: avi, mov, mp4, mkv, etc.  For the past few years, these files made the jump from my computer to the TV by being burned to DVD-Rs and then played with a Philips DVD player that was capable of reading data DVDs and video files with DIVX or XVID encoding.  Sadly, that player gave up the ghost a few weeks back, and when I scanned Amazon for a replacement, I failed to find one that would do the job and be likely to last as long as its predecessor, which gave me a good 5 years or so of service before passing on.  Also, which I like to back up my files in DVD format to hedge against the inevitable corrupted hard drive or two, with files sizes growing ever larger, the DVD's 4GB or so of storage space is quickly becoming an uncomfortable bottleneck for my archives, which already span three colossal CD folders.

I'd always considered switching to a Media PC setup, but didn't want to spend an exorbitant amount of money, or end up with another computer.  (I already have three: the main desktop, a MacBook Air, and a handheld UMID - and that's after I winnowed the pack a bit by selling the weakest links on eBay.)  So I looked at the various media player options available - sort of like lobotomized Media PCs, with basic interfaces - and decided on the Western Digital WD TV Live Streaming Media Player.
You know we've come a long way when the controller is nearly as big as the device itself.
 The device is a simple little box with two USB ports, an HDMI port, and an AC port.  Plug it in, hook it up to your TV, and attach the external storage of your choice, and the WD TV will play your files.  The setup was attractive to me because I had an extra external hard drive, and because I prefer to have modular storage as that means your files won't be put in jeopardy if the media player itself conks out, or vice versa, the media player won't be useless if your hard drive gives up the ghost.

Set up was relatively straightforward, and despite a contrary account from one of the Amazon reviewers, firmware updates were relatively speedy and painless.  It takes a while for the device to catalogue your files, but you can access them even while it's sorting things out.  It plays virtually every file I throw at it (except the new 10-bit encoded mkvs that some anime fansubbers have switched to), and essentially has obviated my need for a DVD player.  (In a pinch, my Xbox 360 or ancient PS2 could pinch hit for a DVD player.)

My only gripe (which might just be me not having figured out how to do it yet) is that it plays your files one at a time, meaning that if you have a bunch of episodes in a single folder, you can't simply press play and have it cycle though the entire folder's contents on its own.  Otherwise, the WD TV is a nifty device for bringing your media from your computer to your TV, and is a fair deal at just under $100.  If you're as dependent on internet sources for your media as I am, it's well worth the investment.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

When the Pen is Mightier: Pilot Hi-Tec-C Cavalier Review

I admit it: I'm a pen addict.  If it's a tool for writing or drawing, it's already captured my attention.  As I write this post, all I need to do is look up to see an acrylic pen holder with twelve slots - all of them taken, naturally - filled with fountain pens, drafting pencils, and a fine-point multi-pen.  And those aren't even the tip of the iceberg - they're just my go-to implements, which also happen to look the best on display.  Of the twelve chosen implements, all but one of them are from the Japanese domestic market.

Like many ill-gotten habits, this one began in college.  My school was within reasonable driving distance of a Kinokuniya bookstore, where I got my fix of manga and anime artbooks.  Kinokuniya's stationary section featured rare treasures from the Land of the Rising Sun like drafting pencils in .3mm and .4mm sizes, corresponding leads in softer grades than I'd ever seen in U.S. stationary stores (.3mm 2B lead, anyone?), and fine-point rollerballs with tips so fine that, when a philosophy prof gave us our final exam question ahead of time and allowed us a single 3x5" notecard's worth of notes, I pre-wrote my essay on the card and simply copied it into a bluebook on test day.  My A-earning effort had been made possible by a .25mm Hi-Tec-C pen and the magnifying-glass vision of my nearsighted eyes.

Naturally, when the opportunity to visit Japan arose several years later, I budgeted a significant portion of my trip money for raiding stationary stores and departments like Ito-ya, Tokyu Hands, and - of course - Kinokuniya.  My efforts yielded several pencils and notebooks that I have yet to see available outside Japan, and cemented my belief that consumers in Japan have access to a treasure trove of goods that others elsewhere in the world can only dream of.

More than any other online store, Jet Pens has done the most to bring these cloistered treasures of the Far East to the internet masses.  Seven of my twelve implements on display were purchased from Jet Pens, and it remains my primary source for replenishing supplies like the aforementioned .3mm 2B pencil lead.

I used to make purchases from Jet Pens on a nearly weekly basis, but have managed to wean myself down to once every few months.  My most recent purchase was influenced by a series of illustration tutorials I've been reviewing.  In one, design artist Feng Zhu expressed his preference for Pilot Hi-Tec-C pens for inking and pen sketching, noting the evenness of the lines produced and the general indelibility of the ink used.  With my test-taking (and micro-transcribing) days long over, my own supply of Hi-Tecs has dwindled to one black and one red in .25mm, which is too fine for my drawing purposes.  I opted to try the Hi-Tec-C Cavalier - essentially a heavier, classier metal body for the standard Hi-Tec-C pen cartridge - in part because I have a preference for heaftier implements, and in part because the pen plus several refills would satisfy the criteria for Jet Pens' free shipping on all orders $25 and up.

The Hi-Tec-C Cavalier is a slim body pen with classical styling that looks more suited to the boardroom than the clear plastic of regular Hi-Tecs.  The core of the pen is made of brass, giving it substance and formidable balance.

It comes with a .4mm cartridge, which is the perfect size for sketching, line art, and even note taking, as I find it strikes a balance between the thinness of the line drawn and ink flow.  The slim body might be a bit less comfortable in larger hands, but for those with smaller mitts (like me) it provides excellent control and is far more portable to boot.  The cap posts securely, extending the length of the body and rebalancing the pen for those who prefer the center of gravity to be closer to the back of the pen.

Though a bit pricey at $16.50, the Hi-Tec-C Cavalier is a great pen and an excellent example of the fine writing implements with which Japanese domestic consumers are blessed.  Jet Pens is doing their best to even the score in that respect, and for that they have my eternal gratitude . . . and patronage!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It's On Amazon: Timex Weekender Slip Through Strap Watch

As I mentioned in my Watch Primer post about affordable watches on Watches to Wear, Timex is a great, dependable brand when it comes to affordable, workhorse timepieces.  As their collaboration model with J. Crew has demonstrated - both by it's popularity and exorbitant-for-a-Timex $150 price tag - the military watch on nylon strap is a versatile and stylish combination that can look good with work attire as easily as it does with jeans and a t-shirt.  There's a line of watches available for $30 on Amazon that can fill the same niche in your watch box for only 1/5th of the price.

Pictured above is my pick of the line: the T2N654KW, with off-white face and blue/gray NATO-style strap.  Really these models are inexpensive enough that you could easily buy both the white and black dialed versions. And - though I'll have to test it myself when I receive the watch in the mail - I suspect these models would dress up quite nicely if you swapped out the NATO for a respectable leather band of the same width (which, according to Amazon, is 20mm).

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Quick Buyer's Tip: Dress Shirt Collars

Having recently tapped some of the Black Friday deals to get better-fitting items in my wardrobe, I thought I'd offer a quick tip about dress shirt collars: the farther the stitching is from the edge of the collar, the finer the quality.