Sep 27, 2011

1992 Kawasaki Zephyr 750 Review


It may seem odd to some that a review is being given to a motorcycle that's more than 10 years old but in fact, one of the great things about 'bikes is that regardless of age most of them (with few exception to the exotics) are just as viable today as when they were brand-new.  The reason for this is that little has changed in motorcycle technology.  Sure, newer bikes have fuel-injection rather than carburetors and the ultra-high-end sport-bikes have engine and frame technology that's become completely high-tech, but at the end of the day does all this expensive technology make for a more enjoyable ride?  No, it's still just a motorcycle with 2 wheels, a seat, side-stand, mirrors, brake and gear-shift levers.

To wit, the 1992 Kawasaki Zephyr 750 remains one of the best all-around "standard" style 'bikes ever produced.  Based on the bullet-proof oil-air cooled engine in use for more than 40 years and frame designs going back to the 1970's legendary "Z1" the Zephyr 750 combines classic design with modern touches, such as the three-spoked, brushed lip magnesium wheels, a 4-into-2 chrome exhaust and updated emissions controls for EPA regulations.

The Zephyr isn't a sport-bike by design but it's no slouch either; twist the throttle on the rev-happy motor and you'll be greeted with plenty of low-end torque for full-stop starts and even more pull from a roll-on power-up.  And unlike it's Ninja cousins it's not top-heavy with the power-band giving the rider a very usable boost right in the middle about 5000rpm.

The decades-old engine design is not only rock-stable reliable but glass smooth too; since the compression ratio of this older motor design isn't pushed to the limits like the ZX series the engine doesn't have to work as hard nor rev as high to find it's usable power, making the Zephyr as playful in town as it is comfortable on extended high-speed freeway jaunts.  And unlike it's typically buzzy Ninja cousins you won't find any annoying bar or footpeg vibrations killing your desire for long rides.

The exhaust note from the dual pipes is equally pleasing, with a very smooth purr at idle up to low-level rpms and opening up with a slight growl with hard acceleration or high-end rpms.

From the cockpit the retro-style chrome plated gauges are easy to read and adds to the nostalgic effect the bike produces from onlookers.  And from the seat, the handlebar and footpeg distance and positioning are near-perfect, making the Zephyr 750 the most comfortable and best ergonomically designed bike I've ever ridden or owned.  Great ergonomics is something Honda totally missed the boat with on their earlier Nighthawk-S and later "Nighthawk" 750 as their footpegs were positioned too far forward to properly setup a natural balance between your hands, feet and butt.

But the overall riding experience in the Zephyr 750 is so good it's almost hard to describe.  The combination of ultra-smooth motor, predictable and usable power-band, superb riding position and retro-yet-gorgeous looks really sets this bike apart from everything else on the road, even today in 2009.  In fact, there's no bike in current production today at any price that comes close to the near-perfect riding experience from the '92 Zephyr 750.  None.

So how is the ride on the 750 Zephyr?  I've always said that riding a 'bike is the closest thing to flying while stuck on the ground and riding the 750 Zephyr certainly falls into that same feeling of freedom and a general sense of excitement. 

Because the frame is the "old-school" dual-downtube design which cradles the engine rather than making it a stressed member there's plenty of flex when you bank the Zephyr hard-over into a corner.  You can definitely feel the swing-arm bend to outside of the corner you're in but at the same time the frame is transmitting 100% feedback from the road and tires; you know *exactly* the point just before either tire starts to lose traction and can either back off throttle or unwind the lean-angle before you start kissing precious metal to the road.

In most standard and even low-end sport-bikes one of the major complaints from aggressive riding is that the stock fork-springs become easily overloaded and even bottom-out during hard braking.  I never found that to be the case with the 750 Zephyr and never did any alterations to the front-end.

Similarly, the dual-shock rear suspension had ample spring pre-load to adjust to my regularly aggressive jaunts through the twisties and never seemed to get out of sorts.  I often wondered how the 'bike would handle if it did have a box-section aluminum frame rather than the decades old dual downtube but I'm sure it would have made for a more ZX-7-type stiffness rather than a compliant ride that could handle being tossed around.

One of the great things about the bike is that because of it's retro-meets-modern look most other riders dismissed it as being lethargic and not much of a performer.  I can't tell you how many times I got surprised looks from Gxx'er, Ninja and YZF riders who couldn't  believe that not only could I gain on them in corners but often pass.  Of course in a straight-line it was no-contest as the pure sport-bikes would out-muscle the Zephyr with greater horsepower.  In fact even the '92 ZX-6 E model made more horsepower and was more fuel efficient than the 750 Zephyr.  But again, being the fastest wasn't the point of owning a Zephyr.

And speaking of performance there's yet another benefit to not having a pure sport-bike:  Insurance rates.  My '92 750 Zephyr cost about 1/10th the amount of my '92 ZX-6 to insure for a year.  And honestly, the Zephyr was a lot more fun and, much more unique.


I haven't seen any of these on the road in more than, geez... 10 or 12 years now. Kawasaki never sold these in great numbers because the American public never fell in love with the "naked sportbike" or even retro-bike concept to the level that cruisers or sport-bikes have enjoyed.  Which is really too bad since some of the worlds best motorcycles fall into the standard or "naked-sportbike" categories such as the Bandit 400, Nighthawk-S/Nighthawk 750, CB-1, CB1000, Kawi ZRX, Yamaha Fazer, GPz1100... the list goes on.

If I could find another '92 Zephyr 750 even in fair condition I'd jump on it, restore it and keep it until my bones are too old to swing over the seat.  The 750 Zephyr is by far the best looking, most enjoyable motorcycle I've ever owned, without reservation.  And that's saying something since I've owned more than 100 motorcycles in my lifetime - so far!


Final Cut Pro X: The second attempt

Like so many others I deeply panned the release of Final Cut Pro X for various and solid reasons, many of which Apple finally admitted to having "goofed" without actually saying it outright.

However they just recently released a free trial and so I thought I'd attempt a second look at FCP X, dig deeper, spend more time getting my head around the interface to see if my opinions had changed at all.

And not surprisingly my opinions haven't changed one bit:  It's still is iMovie on steroids.

There are things that "X" does better than FCP 7, such as being able to immediately and effortlessly scrub, organize and preview effects on clips, but overall the interface, workflow and handling of assets is so completely removed from traditional methods that it *forces* the editor to work in this new environment, rather than giving him the *option* as to whether or not to fully adopt it.

An easier analogy would be to say this:  Imagine you're working in FCP 7 and all of a sudden your interface becomes iMovie... and you'll start to understand the frustration levels you'd endure if that actually happened.

As I expected prior to the release and most certainly now that I've given FCP X a second-chance overview, I'm thoroughly convinced that it's target market is the iMovie editor who wants FCP capabilities but wants the overly simplistic "do it for me" interface of iMovie.

Maybe someday somebody wil figure out how to incorporate all the cool and fast interface tricks FCP X is capable of but put it into a traditional - and more logical - NLE package.  Then we'd really have a game-changing editor.

But, that's exactly what the entire community *expected* FCP X was going to be.  Sadly, it's just not and most likely never will be.

Sep 25, 2011

Panasonic AF100: HD-DSLR Killer, or not?

Ever since the AF100 hit the market there seems to have been only two kinds of people relevant to it's existence:  Those who love it, or hate it.  In fact there was for a time a handful of people who seemed to enjoy slamming the new camera with baseless rhetoric on one particular forum to the point that the forum owner took down that category since the posts seemed to go out of control.

Perps with just too much time on their hands or a calculated - and paid for - back-door slander campaign from Sony?

I can tell you from personal experience that it wouldn't be the first time that Sony used the public to spread unsubstantiated lies about their competitors.  Think corporate sabotage happens only in dark rooms with shady players?  Sometimes it's all done right out in the open; people never expect subversive behavior to be going on right in front of them.  But that's a post for another time and place...

But what about the topic of this post?  Even before the first retail unit of the AF100 was available to the public it was being deemed the, "DSLR Killer".  So, is it?  That depends on your point of view and, your budget!

Recently, Zacuto released a series of very expensive and well-produced short series of videos called, "The Great Camera Shootout", which featured all the current players of high-quality HD video cameras from the 7D all the way up to the ARRI Alexa and RED and compared them to traditional film cameras.  If you haven't watched it yet I highly recommend it.

In it you'll find that in all the tests, there was very little difference in image quality between the Sony F3, Panny AF100 and the two Canon bodies, the 5D MkII and 7D.  (Interestingly enough, I found that the 7D seemed to outperform the 5DMkII just slightly in several areas).

Now that may come as a big surprise, that the DSLR's weren't "terrible" up against real video cameras.  But ironically, the AF100 and F3 were also not night-and-day better than the Canons!  That being the case, why bother with an AF100 then?  Good question!

The big thing filmmakers have always wanted from their video cameras was the film-like depth-of-field that true film cameras have; the AF100, F3 and the Canon DSLR's all have this look.  But that's only half the equation.

The other half is having real video-camera type controls over things like shutter, iris (aperture), frame-rate, audio, timecode, internal ND filters and external monitoring.  These are all attributes that are either slightly wonky to accomplish in a DSLR or just isn't possible at all.  Yet.

But all these things ARE possible in the AF100.  But yet again, with exception to timecode coming from the camera, there are a plethora of workarounds and third-party add-ons to get all these things from a DSLR.  So we're back to the original question:  Is the AF100 the HD-DSLR killer?  Yes, and no.  Huh?

OK, let's look at it from two perspectives:  One from the no-budget one-man-band type producer who needs the film-look but needs to spend the least amount of cash as possible.  That usually means a DSLR.  A bare-bones DSLR rig would amount to the camera body, a decent zoom lens (such as Canon's 24-105mm f/4 L), and an external audio recorder and mic.  All that would set you back roughly $3500... or so depending on what other accessories you needed like a decent video tripod/head, stands etc.

A bare-bones AF100 such as the kit Panny sells with the 14-140mm lens and battery sells for just under $5000.  So from a bare-bones cash perspective you could save around $1500 with a DSLR.

BUT, the story doesn't end there because the 7D can't do all the things the AF100 can such as:

  • In-Camera VFR (variable frame-rate recording, which means slow or fast motion)
  • In-Camera two-channel XLR audio
  • Built-in 3-stage ND filters
  • Black & White mode (yes, it really shoots B&W in-camera)
  • The ability to change advanced camera settings such as gamma curves, pedestal, chroma phase, vertical detail, etc.
  • In-camera timecode in and out
  • True 8-bit HD-SDI out allowing 4:2:2 color space recording
  • In-camera audio monitoring
...and a host of other features too long to list.

Most of what's listed above the 5DMkII nor 7D - nor any DSLR for that matter is capable of, period.  And you shouldn't ever expect them to be able to... since they're STILLS cameras, not dedicated video cameras.

So is there anything the 7D can do better than the AF100?  Yes, take still photos!  That's what it's been optimized to do.

Listen, I've shot with both the 5D MkII and the 7D and I like them both.  They've both been used in countless features, commercials and indie films.  In fact Philip Bloom recently used his 5D MkII on a feature for LucasFilm and I've used the 5DMkII for my own commercial work as well.  But at the end of the day, a DSLR isn't as easy, as fast to setup and use nor as versatile for real filming than a dedicated video camera.

So for me, given a choice I'll always reach for an AF100 before a DSLR everytime.

UPDATE:  One thing I forgot to mention, is that getting critical focus from the built-in rear LCD on any DSLR is almost impossible, and damned frustrating at best.  So that means you'd need to use a loupe-style viewer of some sort - such as the EVF Pro from Zacuto - to really be able to see what you're doing.  That setup costs around $1200, which for the most part negates any savings you might have hoped for using a DSLR-type rig.

So why bother and just get an AF100!  Trust me, you'll be glad you did.  That is, unless Canon's November 3rd "historical event" is going to give us another game-changing *real* video camera.


Sep 20, 2011

Apple Issues free trial of Final Cut X

If you've been paying attention to the recent debacle surrounding Apple's release of Final Cut Pro "X" you know the majority of the Final Cut userbase (including myself) were flabbergasted and disgusted with the direction it took.

Not to mention that a large number of people who purchased the new app got a refund from Apple because of the major issues and unseen gotchas that reared their ugly head.

However Apple in rare form has done two things to being to address the long list of issues surrounding "X":

They've just released a major update to the app with a few bug fixes and added just a few of the functionality items missing from X and;

This update also comes with a free 30-day trial (a first for any Apple-branded app!) so anyone can take it for a spin and see how it handles:

What's NOT clear - because it's not stated anywhere on Apple's webpages - are what limitations, if any, there are associated with the trial version.  I plan to find out myself and will update as needed.

I'd highly suggest anyone curious about FCP X to use the trial and put it through it's paces.  And while you're at it, download the free trial of Premiere Pro as well... and YOU be the judge, not the over-hyped marketing materials!