Behind the Wheel: 2010 Chrysler Town & Country

Recently I had a chance to spend some extended time (nearly 2 weeks) driving around the desert southwest (Nevada, Arizona, Utah) in a 2010 Chrysler Town & Country (with the Touring package).

Now, I’m not normally very fond of minivans personally, but I can appreciate them for what they are – very practical vehicles. And in this case, a minivan was exactly what we needed.

We had 4 people, two of whom had just flown in from Australia, so they had all of their luggage for a 6-week stay in the US with them. So we needed a car that could fit all of that luggage, as well as seat all 4 of us comfortably for the very long drives between various national parks we’d be visiting.

So, it was with all that in mind that I rented a minivan, and the 2010 Chrysler Town & Country is what we ended up with.

Now, on paper it seems like this should be a very respectable vehicle – but, as is so often the case, reality turned out to be somewhat different.

Now, in the sense of giving us plenty of room for luggage and people, the Town & Country did not disappoint. We easily fit 4 huge suitcases in the back (the 3rd row seats fold flat into the floor, a very neat trick) along with 2 big carry-on bags and various other stuff we picked up along the way (e.g., a huge pack of bottled water to keep us all hydrated in the dry desert). There was also plenty of space for the 4 of us, and we each got captain-style chairs which were very comfortable.

However, the driving experience was less than I expected – and I didn’t expect too much, given that this is a minivan, after all.

For one thing, the engine seemed to be a very bad match for such a heavy vehicle (4,507 pounds). While it was a 3.8L V6, it only put out 197 hp and it only reached that maximum horsepower at a very high 5200 RPM.

The transmission was also a source of frustration the whole trip – it was a very nice 6-speed automatic, but the V6 engine has such a narrow power band that even on the mostly flat roads we drove on, it was constantly switching gears, just to keep us moving at a constant speed.

And although the engine delivered impressive power, it did so when we least needed it – for example, at very low speeds. It was very easy to “surge” forward when pulling away from a stop, but on the highway when you needed to pass a slow-moving trailer (as you often do on the long single-lane state highways out there) you really had to mash your foot down into the floor.

And speaking of the long drives we had to make – although the passengers were very comfortable, as a driver I found it a bit annoying that all you have is the little captain’s chair-style armrests. You can’t even really lean your arm on the window – the van is so wide that the door is just too far away from where you are sitting in the driver’s chair.

All-in-all, although the Town & Country had the space we needed, it was not in any way a pleasure to drive. It really seems to have been designed to appeal to people who don’t like driving, rather than people who do. So, I guess if that’s you, then you’ll be happy with this minivan.

Why I Still Use My Canon PowerShot S3 IS Camera

Considering how fast the digital camera world moves forward (in terms of technology), you might find it surprising that I – a huge technology geek – am still using my 2006-vintage Canon PowerShot S3 IS camera, even though it has been replaced by more than a few new models from Canon (at least 5 new models, by my count – and quite possibly more).

Now you might be wondering why I’m sticking with an older camera like this – but I assure you, there is a very good reason. And that reason is, basically, that Canon has not come out with a newer, “better” camera that is comparable to the venerable S3 in terms of features, price, performance, and accessories.

For example, the direct successor to the S3 is the S5, which is basically the same camera, but with 8 megapixels instead of 6, a newer image processor, and a hot shoe for attaching an auxiliary flash.

Sounds great, right? Well, yes and no. While at first glance the S5 seems like it is “better,” there is one other change that’s really annoying – the memory card slot on the S5 is on the bottom of the camera, inside the battery compartment, instead of on the side like in the S3. This means that you can’t switch memory cards easily while on a tripod, since the battery compartment is usually blocked by your tripod mount. And while this seems like a minor nit-pick, you also have to consider that the other new features of the S5 just aren’t quite compelling enough to justify buying an entirely new camera. (Remember: these cameras aren’t cheap, and they don’t have the same resale value that a full DSLR would have.)

There are more examples as well. Moving up the Canon “S” series of cameras we come to the SX10 and Sx20. Now, these are both very nice cameras, but again, they have some downsides that make it just not-quite-good-enough to justify spending a whole bunch of money on a new camera.

One aspect of the new cameras in the “S” series is that the lens speed (i.e.,largest aperture setting) has been slowly going down.  My S3 has a max aperture of  f/2.7 at the wide end, and f/3.5 at full zoom – but the SX10 and SX20 have max apertures of  f/2.8 at the wide end and f/5.7 at full zoom.

And things don’t get any better if you jump up to the next range of Canon cameras – the PowerShot G series. Oh, sure, the early G series cameras had decently fast lenses (f/2.0 at the wide end, which is impressive for what is technically still a “point and shoot” camera), but the later G series all got bumped up to f/2.8 at the wide end, which is… not as impressive.

(For those who are a little confused as to what I’m talking about with these crazy f-numbers and references to “fast” lenses, this article from Wikipedia offers a good explanation. Generally speaking, a smaller f-number means a larger aperture, which means more light can come into the camera in a given amount of time.)

And let’s not forget that I’ve invested a fair bit of change into accessories for my camera. I’ve got filters and wide-angle lens adapters, which I would prefer not to have to re-buy with a new camera. Now, while the S5 would take the same accessories, but the SX10 and SX20 would not. And as for the G series, well, some of them support my accessories (mostly the earlier models) but some do not.

And I’m still not done – because some of the models above have the nice swivel-screen that is so handy to have, but others don’t. And some have the same electronic viewfinder, but others have a rather simple see-through preview hole, which does not actually show you what your picture will look like (instead, you have to use the full-sized screen).

I also am rather particular in my camera using regular AA-size batteries, so that I can find replacements easily in the field if I need to. Also, I can carry extra spares easily and charge them all using standard battery chargers, instead of needing special manufacturer-specific chargers.

So, as you can see, while there are many newer cameras to choose from, none offers the same excellent mix of features and accessories as my venerable old S3:

  • Swivel screen
  • Side-accessible memory card slot (not in the battery compartment)
  • Uses standard AA batteries
  • Accessories via a 58 mm mount on an adapter tube
  • Viewfinder that shows a full view of what the sensor sees (it’s electronic, not optical, but it’s still handy)
  • Good optical zoom range (12x)
  • Decent lens speed (f/2.7 – f/3.5)

For sure, newer cameras offer some of the same features (along with other benefits from being newer & using better technology), but none of them offers the same blend of features. And none of the benefits of the new cameras is, as of yet, compelling enough to make me spend several hundred dollars on a new camera, when my old one does just fine, thank you, and has all these features that I like, and won’t require me to re-purchase all new accessories.

Maybe someday Canon will come out with a new camera that offers the same features as the PowerShot S3, but with upgraded technology (hint hint, Canon!), then maybe I’ll consider upgrading. But until that day comes, I’m sticking with my trusty little S3.

Photos licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license. Photo credits: HendrixEesti, Yug and Rama. (Click on the photos themselves for further details.)

Keith’s Anime Reviews: Samurai Champloo

fuu from samurai champlooSamurai Champloo: a samurai-style anime with 2 insanely powerful swordsmen, a cute girl (and her cute pet squirrel), filled with (sometimes not-so-subtle) modern-day references, set to rap and hip-hop music.

This is a show that is made of awesome and win.

Samurai Champloo alternates between hilarious and fun and deadly serious and action-packed, sometimes in the very same scene! It is quite literally one of the most enjoyable anime series I have ever watched.

Surprisingly for such an action-packed show, Samurai Champloo also has its moments of depth – the characters all have complicated lives that brought them into the situation of the show, and throughout the series these back-stories are explored bit by bit… but never too much at once. You only really learn all about the characters at the very end of the series, when all the pieces fall into place.

But don’t let the exploration of the characters back-story distract you from the fun, often odd-ball quirkiness that this series is just chock-full of. From the goofy Dutch guy to the bunch of teens doing graffiti to the game of NINJA BASEBALL – this series loves to let loose with some truly entertaining insanity.

That said, the plot does move a bit slowly in this series, so casual viewers might feel a little lost by the end. So while I wouldn’t recommend this series to absolutely everyone, it is a superb show that I think anyone can (and probably should) enjoy.

p.s. If you enjoy Samurai Champloo, you’ll probably also enjoy its spiritual sibling, Cowboy Bebop.

Keith’s Anime Reviews: Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop - See you, space cowboyCowboy Bebop: an anime set in the future, with a sort of sci-fi/western thing going on, set to jazz music.

What more could you want?

How about beautiful animation that completely fits with the tone of the story? Or characters that seem “real” instead of just cardboard-cut outs of your standard character archetypes that are so common in lots of shows and movies? Or a truly fascinating story that explores the backgrounds of the main characters, as well as dipping into some truly deep and thoughtful territory?

Maybe the fact that this is set in the future has scared you off, or perhaps you just don’t like sci-fi. Well, don’t let that stop you from enjoying this anime – you could just as easily set this story in the old west and it would (largely) hold up just as well.

Oh sure, there’s a few downsides – the “fan service” we tend to get from Faye Valentine can kind of seem out of place at times, and a couple of stories don’t hold up as well as the others, but honestly these are very minor quibbles.

All-in-all, Cowboy Bebop is an immensely enjoyable show, which I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone, whether they be a fan of anime or not.

p.s. If you enjoy Cowboy Bebop, you’ll probably also enjoy its spiritual sibling, Samurai Champloo.

Keith’s Anime Reviews: Macross Plus

Think of this as being like Top Gun, but… IN SPACE!!! (Actually, very little of the show takes place in space – it’s more like Top Gun with planes that ALSO TRANSFORM INTO ROBOTS!!!) Given this description, how can you not think this is awesome??


Macross Plus is a little bit odd in that it’s not really a series, but not really a movie either. Perhaps you would call it an OVA? Released on 2 DVDs and covering 4 episodes, it sort of straddles the line between a feature-length movie and a TV series. Be that as it may, it’s still an incredibly good show.

There is a much larger mythos surrounding the “Macross” name which I only understand in the most general sense. However, understanding that mythos isn’t really necessary to enjoy Macross Plus.

The basic premise is easy to understand: in the future, on a different planet, the military is testing two new prototype fighters. The two test pilots turn out to know each other – they grew up together – but there is some sort of bad memory between the two that causes them to be very competitive with one another. On top of that, there’s their love of the same woman – a love triangle which is also complicated by their shared past.

Although set in a fictional future on a fictional planet, you could almost ignore the futuristic setting of the story and set it in the present day and it would still work just as well (though probably with less of the cool fight scenes and awesome special effects). Because of this, it’s the story itself which carries this show rather than the setting – and that speaks volumes about the quality of the story.

It’s because of the strong story that I highly recommend Macross Plus. It is a fantastic action movie in its own right, beautifully animated and highly entertaining, with a strong story and just the right amount of mystery and romance mixed in to make it appealing in the same way as many summer blockbuster movies. Unless you have an aversion to action films, you should give Macross Plus a try – it’s well worth it.