Nova Flash Review

 

This thing is very bright -- this is not the brightest setting. I did not add any pixie dust to this photo.
The Nova Flash in action. It’s very bright – this is not the brightest setting. I did not add any pixie dust to this photo.

I am a backer on Kickstarter for the $59 wireless Nova Flash from https://www.novaphotos.com/. The hardware recently shipped to backers, so I have had a chance to try it out.

Since I have been interested in off-camera flash in general, I backed and bought the Nova flash. The Nova brings the general advantages of off-camera flash to the iPhone and Android platforms. Off-camera flash improves your photos by moving the light source away from the lens. Your subject has more natural shadows and detail. Off-camera flash is at its best in portraits, where subjects lose that deer-in-the-headlights look and have more natural skin tones. An off-camera flash can also give your portraits a nice catch-light reflection in the eyes.

The Nova flash works with a dedicated Nova camera app which fires the flash using Bluetooth radio control.

The initial release of the Nova is oriented towards the iPhone, with a very basic camera app for the Android. I only tested with the Android version for this review.

Nova requires iOS 7 or Android 4.3 or greater. It requires that your hardware support Bluetooth 4.0 low energy. For this reason, the Nova requires newer iOS devices: iPhone 4S/5/5C/5S, iPad 3/4/Mini/Air or the iPod Touch 5G.  I tested on the Motorola Moto X, running Android 4.4.

 

Nova Flash and iPhone
The Nova flash next to an iPhone 4. The Nova requires a newer model for Bluetooth compatibility.

 

The Nova hardware is super simple. It’s a thin white plastic case with no user controls or buttons at all. It has a micro USB port which is used to charge the internal battery. It is extremely compact which should encourage you to take it along frequently. The translucent case allows the LED lights to shine through with a nice diffuse glow.

Nova App on Android taking a photo
Taking a photo with Nova

 

Below are before and after photos taken with the regular Android camera app, and with Nova.

 

Stock Android camera, no flash
Before: Stock Android camera, no flash

The face is underexposed without flash. I took another photo using the stock camera app, with the built-in flash, but it was a total disaster — shiny skin, closed eyes, really awful, trust me. Mercifully, I deleted it.

 

Nova App, Medium Flash Brightness
After: Nova App, Medium Flash Brightness

The Nova flash provided a nice fill-flash here and really made a much nicer photo.

Serious backlight problem
Before: Serious backlight problem
After: Backlighting somewhat overcome
After: Backlighting somewhat overcome by Nova Flash

The Nova acts more like a radio controlled LED flashlight than a traditional photo flash. When you take a picture, the flash comes on for a couple of seconds, during which time the photo is taken. So, you won’t be stopping any fast action with this flash. The long illumination time appears to allow the camera to adapt to the new lighting situation and take a properly exposed photo. The good thing about this is your subject has time to get over any blink reflex before the photo.

Nova Flash Summary

What’s Hot:

  • $59 price
  • Compact size, light weight
  • Bright enough to make a real difference

What’s Not:

  • Occasional trouble connecting via Bluetooth – restart App or turn Bluetooth on/off to recover
  • No indication of battery state. This would be a nice addition to the app.

Update: June 2016 Not Recommended

The Nova Flash just went on the trash heap of otherwise nice products condemned by a bad battery. Mine sat in the drawer for 6 months. When I was ready to use it again, it wouldn’t charge up or operate. The battery is not replaceable. Since the unit doesn’t have an off switch, the battery discharges drastically when not in use.  I can’t recommend getting this, since the same thing is virtually guaranteed to happen to every unit eventually.

 

Keyboard Shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts, the phrase can inspire a sense of desired expertise and simplicity and a sense of fear and guilt over not knowing what we “should” know when using our chosen software. Most of us have seen people we regard with awe as they breeze through a task with ease like a 120 wpm typist, rarely touching a mouse. The fact is there is no shortcut for shortcuts. That is, we must spend a fair amount of time using a program to learn the various key combinations that will help unlock our creativity. But even that isn’t enough because pointing and clicking and scrolling has proven to be a very efficient way to get things done on a screen. We must make the extra effort to learn and use keyboard shortcuts, over and over until it becomes more like muscle memory.

With this in mind I thought I’d point out a few cheats that may help the keyboard shortcut challenged on their path to awe inspiring pecking. One that I use is called Keycue, from Ergonis Software. Once downloaded it sits in your Applications folder where you may customize it extensively. It works rather simply, hold down the command key while in just about any application and a screen overlay pops up showing the available keyboard commands for that application. Another method is to apply removable overlays to one’s keyboard that will spell out the function of the key when pressed using the given application. There are myriad sources for these on the web, and as I don’t use any I can’t recommend any particular brand. Taking that a step further, there are actual application specific USB keyboards that will cost more but if you are using the app every day it may be worth the cost. I have used some of these in the past but ultimately found them to be rather distracting, as they almost always use various (loud) colors based on the function of the keys.

Which brings to me to the inspiration for this post. Today I saw another cheat and thought it was very clever, oh, and it’s free. It’s web based and only has Lightroom and Photoshop keyboard shortcuts for now, but those are two good ones to start with. It’s a cross between Keycue and an overlay, here is the link http://waldobronchart.github.io/ShortcutMapper/#AdobeLightroom

Keyboard shortcuts can help speed up common commands and enlighten us about commands we didn’t even know existed. They are created to help us get things done, to ignore them is not in our best interests. I suggest you learn a few to get started, then one or two very week and before you know it you’ll be wondering what ever happened to that subtle pain in your wrist.

HDCP Prevents Legit Viewing

“The main practical effect of HDCP has been to create one more way in which your electronics could fail to work properly with your TV.” -Edward Felten, Chief Technologist US Federal Trade Commission

It’s an appropriate coincidence. I’ve been having serious issues with HDMI cables and boxes in my family room TV setup, and today just happens to be International Day Against DRM. (Digital Rights Management)

A Quick Overview

HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is a set of interfaces for connecting video equipment. A single cable carries digital video and audio. HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) is the DRM (Digital-Rights Management ) scheme forced on consumers as part of consumer HDMI-capable equipment.


I recently purchased an AV Receiver which has HDMI inputs and outputs. I have been having a lot of issues keeping that working in my setup. Those issues may or  may not have anything to do with DRM or HDCP, although they certainly are not helping. (Update: Yes, they were DRM issues.)

I went to a simpler configuration where my Apple TV is directly feeding my TV set via HDMI. That ought to work, right? And it did work, until I tried to watch something. Then I saw this message:

This content requires HDCP for Playback
Displayed by Apple TV

I really don’t know what to do about this. I have tried cycling power to the Apple TV and to the TV. I am using the same HDMI cable that I have used previously. That cable works fine for non-protected content.

So, what content was I trying to watch that was so important that it needed to be  protected from unauthorized access? A trailer. I was trying to watch a trailer for a movie from a major studio. These studios are the very people behind the worst excesses of DRM. Ironic, isn’t it. The studios spend a lot of money trying to get trailers out to the public to promote their new movies. And I can’t watch them on my Apple TV because of their own DRM policies.

I want to emphasize that I was not at any point trying to circumvent copyright. I was simply trying to use my consumer electronics as designed.

Here is the fundamental problem with DRM. To the big-money copyright holders nothing is more important than their ownership rights. In the current DRM and copyright environment, no inconvenience or expense for the consumer is too great, as long as it protects the interests of the big studios.

Apple, this is a major usability fail. It’s a serious embarrassment for your product to ever produce a message like this. You need to push back hard on these guys and get this fixed.

Update 7 May 2014: After additional testing, the same Apple TV and HDMI cable was able to play protected content when connected to a different TV (a Samsung). When re-connected to the original Hitachi Ultravision, it again refused to play. This used to work on the Hitachi. Getting a new TV is not an acceptable solution to this problem.

Again, the same cable was used. I doubt any claims that a different cable will fix this problem, unless someone can show that some HDMI cables are not HDCP compliant. I do not believe this is the case. The general rule that cables cause a lot of problems still applies, but I believe if you have a bad cable, you will have other problems besides with HDCP.  In any case, I tried various cables with no improvement.

Apple should obviously be motivated to fix this, since customers won’t be buying any more content from the Apple store until this is fixed.

Update 10 May 2014: I called Hitachi, and they said it was an Apple problem. I expected finger-pointing and I got it. I specifically asked if there were any firmware updates for my TV set, and yes, there is one or more, and they may have to do with HDMI. Why didn’t Hitachi volunteer this fact before blaming Apple? Personally, I blame Hitachi, Apple, Intel (developer of HDCP), Denon and especially the MPAA. When you have these type of problems with the MPAA’s DRM crap that they forced down our throats, is the MPAA going to come to your house and fix your TV? Not likely.

I am working on getting this firmware installed. To do so, I need to buy a now-obscure and obsolete MMC memory card. (MMC cards are very similar to SD cards, but not quite compatible.)

Just today, I got a nice email from PBS announcing their streaming video service — it’s available on Apple TV, but I can’t watch it, because it uses DRM. PBS isn’t really all that “Public” is it?

This video shows what may become a popular solution for this problem: http://youtu.be/HIVi55T89PI  🙂

Update 20 May 2014: I got an MMC card, and updated the firmware on my TV. This did not make any difference. It was a long shot, since I didn’t have much information on what the firmware update was supposed to accomplish. I have now ordered an HDMI splitter, which is rumored to override, defeat or eliminate HDCP.

Update 22 May 2014: The problem appears to be solved! I bought an HDMI splitter. The reviews for this device indicated that many people found that it eliminates HDCP. I am not actually splitting the signal. I just inserted the splitter in-line between the Apple TV and the TV, and I could then watch any content from the Apple TV.

I then moved the splitter to be between the Denon AV receiver and the TV, with the Apple TV’s HDMI output going to the Denon. Again everything is fine. This is the configuration that had been working before the problem started, except for the addition of the splitter.

Lessons Learned

  • If you have a Denon AV receiver with the display going blank after a few seconds, that’s Denon’s way of saying you have an HDCP problem. At least the Apple TV provided an explicit message. When I called Denon about this problem, they didn’t even hint at DRM or HDCP as the issue — they just said my cables must be bad.
  • If you have any problems with HDCP, don’t expect any meaningful help from the manufacturers of your gear. They’ll just send you down an endless rabbit hole of trying different cables, plugging and unplugging things and doing factory resets, etc.
  • Run, don’t walk to get this splitter, or something similar that eliminates the problem. When you buy the splitter, don’t forget, you will need one more HDMI cable.
  • Once again, DRM is demonstrated to annoy the hell out of legitimate, paying customers, while proving to be a trivial barrier for determined content pirates. For the price of one Blu-ray movie, I obtained a device that eliminates DRM as an obstacle to copying content.