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First look: Mobileme vs. Google Sync

Posted on Oct 7, 2009 in Featured, iPhone, Mac, Opinions

sync

In my post Free alternatives to MobileMe earlier this year, I looked at some free alternatives to Apple’s MobileMe service. One crucial piece was still missing though: The seamless over-the-air syncing and push email experience offered by MobileMe on the iPhone.

Google Sync – the Missing Piece of the Puzzle?

MobileMe’s biggest advantage to date has been its support for push email and over-the-air syncing, which ensures that emails and changes to calendars and contacts are synced to iPhone users instantly.

But with Google Sync, Google aims to offer GMail and Google Calendar  users the same over-the-air syncing feature that MobileMe does. To accomplish this, Google is basically taking advantage of the fact that the iPhone (and most other smartphones) natively support Microsoft Exchange syncing. So Google are offering their own Exchange-compatible service, that acts as an intermediary between your data stored in Google’s services and your iPhone. Configure Google Sync as a new exchange account on your iPhone, enable Push support and Google will Push any new email messages, calendar or contact updates to your phone.

When you consider that iCal, Address Book and Mail on the Mac also natively support syncing with Google’s services, Google Sync starts to look like a very interesting alternative to MobileMe. Change a contact in Address Book or add an appointment to iCal  and those changes should be synced right up to your phone, without requiring a slow, USB iTunes sync – just like MobileMe. Emails should also be delivered right away, circumventing the 15 minute fetching interval limit. Or as Google sums it up it a cutesy comic:

sync-comic

But how well does it work in the real world?

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Setting up Google Sync on your phone isn’t particularly difficult and Google offers easy step-by-step instructions. Enter your details, ignore a certificate warning, enter some more details and you’re done.

Emails

But mysteriously my Gmail inbox would only show 3 messages I had received this morning, with no sign of any messages I had received earlier in the week or later today. The same problem affected my other mailboxes as well. I was able to coax a few more messages off the server by selecting to only sync a week’s worth of email messages, but that does severely limit habitual emails hoarders such as myself. A know current limitation of the service is also the fact that drafts can’t be edited, once synced.

Contacts

My Google contacts showed up fairly quickly in my Contacts application. But new contacts didn’t seem to sync back up to Gmail, no matter how often I tried to coax Google Sync into action.

Conclusion

Judging by the discussions going on over on the Google Sync messageboards, it looks as though the service has been pretty flaky for users the last few days, so these are most likely serious teething issues. But until these reliability problems are sorted out, it’s hard to realistically see Google Sync as a serious MobileMe alternative anytime soon.

Having said that, it’s promising to see Google taking the initiative and trying to offer an Exchange-like experience for non-corporate / non-MobileMe user – so Google gets a gold star for trying. It’s also worth remembering that MobileMe (a $99 per year service) had its own fair share of teething issues, so let’s hope Google is able to really challenge Apple in this area in the near future.

But for the time being, I’ll be sticking with regular Gmail IMAP syncing for my emails and MobileMe syncing for my contacts and calendars.

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Review: CameraBag Desktop

Posted on Oct 1, 2009 in Featured, Mac, Reviews

Digital photography has made it easier for us all to take hundreds of near-perfect shots. But digital photography lacks some of the elements that made each photo taken with an analog camera unique. The type of film, processing techniques and photo-paper used all contributed to give each image a distinctive look.

CameraBag, by Nevercenter, gives digital photography enthusiasts an easy way to introduce some of that flavour back into their photography. Like its iPhone sibling (App Store link), CameraBag Desktop is designed to be straightforward and easy-to-use: Instead of presenting users with a confusing number of options, exposure settings, histograms and color profiles, CameraBag has 9 styles, that can all be applied with a single click.

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CameraBag-styles

The styles are based on a mix of classic analog cameras and media formats. The manual describes as such:

Helga: Square-format toy camera with washed-out highlights and old-school vignetting.
Lolo: Shoot from the hip and take life as it comes with vibrant, colorful shots.
Mono: Smooth, refined, balanced black and white
1962: Dynamic, high-contrast black and white from the photojournalism of a bygone era.
Colorcross: Hazy, chemical color-swapping straight from the darkroom.
Instant: No need to shake this instant-developing film.
1974: Your father’s camera: faded, tinted, and hip.
Cinema: Dramatic, moody coloring with a widescreen aspect ratio.
Magazine: Rich tones for glossy pages.

Once you’ve dragged your image into the main window, apply one of the styles by simply clicking its preview thumbnail. Each style will crop your image and apply a variety of filters. You can also mix & match styles by checking the “multi-filter” option. This will allow you to apply multiple styles on top of each other, creating distinctive looks and styles. If you want to start over, simply click the “original” thumbnail, to discard all applied styles.

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CameraBag also applies a crop and border to your image, based on your style. If you prefer, you can also pick these manually though, allowing for even more image variations. If one of the styles doesn’t suit your taste, you can also “Reprocess” an image to see variations of that style. If a style produces an image that is too dark or lacking in contrast, reprocessing your picture will often deliver a much better result, so if you’re not happy with the way a photo turns out, try reprocessing it!

Some styles may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I found myself using some more often than others. But most styles do a really good job of adding some flavour to your images.The CameraBag Photo Blog has some great examples of the kinds of results you can achieve, with nice before/after comparisons.

The UI is nicely laid out and very easy to use (although I’m not quite sure why the designers found it necessary for a user to “turn on” reprocessing). EDIT: @CameraBag clarifies:

“[…] reprocess auto-enables when clicked. It’s more about the off switch to get back to each filter’s signature look”

Styles are applied nearly instantaneously and while you’re finding the right style for your images the application feels very fast. Rotating and saving images causes a slight bit of delay, but both are extremely minor. For those who enjoy a good manual with their software, Nevercenter includes a detailed PDF guide, which I personally find a lot more useful than trying to find information with OS X’s built-in help system.

Overall CameraBag is a great and affordable way to liven up your shots. It’s an interesting new type of photo stylizer that works well as a complementary tool to traditional photo editing applications such as iPhoto or Picasa.

Available for just $19, it’s a must-have for every wannabe photographer.

Download CameraBag

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Thoughts on Snow Leopard marketing

Posted on Aug 25, 2009 in Featured, Mac, Opinions

As predicted, 10.6 will be released August 28th, slightly earlier than promised. It certainly makes sense for Apple to release 10.6 before Microsoft Windows 7 marketing can hit: Rather than trying to compete with Microsoft for reviews and media attention, release early and hog all the attention for yourself.

However, the extremely short lead-up between announcement and release is a bit surprising: both the 10.4 and 10.5 releases had longer marketing build-ups, with big release countdown clocks dominating the Apple homepage.

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But the slightly more subdued marketing plays into the way Apple has positioned 10.6 as an incremental release: If you stick a big countdown clock on your website, people are going to expect huge fantastic changes. But with so few visible changes to Snow Leopard, that’s clearly not the kind of message Apple is trying to send. At the same time, early reviews have been very favorable and at the unbeatable price of $29, it’s hard not to be far more impressed by the new “fine-tuned” version of OS X, than the marketing would lead you to believe.

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I guess that the goal of this positioning and marketing strategy is mainly to allow Apple to under-promise and over-deliver – a great way to prepare for Windows 7 this fall.

At any rate, existing Mac owners have some great improvements to look forward to, potential first-time customers will be reminded which OS is the pundits’ favorite and developers get some under-the-hood improvements to play with. All-in-all it should be a very solid release for Apple.

If you enjoyed this article, support the site: Purchase your copy of Snow Leopard at Amazon with free shipping via one of the links below:

Snow Leopard (requires 10.5 to be installed on your Mac)

Snow Leopard Family Edition (requires 10.5. to be installed on your Mac)

Mac Box Set (Full version of Snow Leopard, iLife ’09 and iWork ’09)


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Hands-on review: Olympus E-P1 Pen

Posted on Jul 20, 2009 in Featured, Reviews

Introduction

In general, most people choose one of two types of cameras: Simple point & shoot cameras (P&S) that are extremely small, but don’t offer manual adjustment options – or complex &  large DSLRs, which offer full control over nearly every aspect of your image. But the size and bulk of traditional DSLR cameras can make them unsuitable for certain occasions and events, where you might not want to lug a large camera bag and equipment around with you. Digital SLRs can also be intimidating for casual users, who worry about making the jump from their tried and trusted P&S.

The Olympus E-P1 ‘PEN’, based on the original Olympus PEN, has essentially created a new category for itself that sits in-between DSLRs such as Olympus’ own E-520 and other “enthusiast” compacts, such as the Panasonic Lumix LX-3 or the Canon G10. Unlike traditional DSLRs, this camera looks similar to most compacts, albeit slightly larger. But the interchangeable lenses and much larger sensor it DSLR-like capabilities, making the E-P1 a compelling for photography enthusiasts and “prosumers”.

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Camera hardware

The E-P1 is extremely well put together: The aluminum housing gives the cameras a very sturdy, solid feel that reminds me of Apple’s Unibody MacBook design. Like the new MacBooks, there’s not a creak or wobble to be found in this case. Other elements such as the doors that cover battery compartment and USB connector feel very reassuringly solid as well. As it is made of aluminum and fairly large, the camera does have a considerable heft to it, but it’s “the good kind of heavy”, that makes you confident it won’t fall apart the first time you accidently bump it against something.

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Whilst I didn’t have the camera long enough to conduct real battery life tests, I took around 350 pictures and shot 20 minutes or so of video with just one brief recharge in the 4 days I took it out with me. Swapping batteries is really easy as well, so battery life shouldn’t be an issue.

Handling & controls

As the E-P1 is styled like an oversized compact, it fits nicely into your hands and can even be used with just one-hand quite comfortably. The control layout on the back of the camera is well thought out and quite easy to reach whilst shooting. The obligatory mode dial on the top of the camera is nice and grippy, so you won’t have any issues quickly switching between modes. One minor gripe I do have is the clickwheel, which can be a bit too sensitive at times. Something with slightly more tactile feedback would make navigating menus easier. As any optical zoom capability is built-in to your lenses, you grip and twist the barrel to zoom in or out and the live view LCD displays a precise preview without any noticeable lag.

Menus

The menu system on the E-P1 is extremely comprehensive, to say the least. You can tweak nearly every button setting and mode to your heart’s content. But Olympus have also made the basic functionality very easy to discover, so that even an Olympus novice like myself can change settings, modes and options after a few minutes of playing with the camera. Having said that, I did find myself resorting to the manual at one point to figure out to manually move the point of focus.

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Features & Functionality

Automatic & Scene modes

The E-P1 has a nice mix of professional and consumer-orientated features. Put the camera in iAuto mode and the E-P1 will figure out which settings to use, switching between macro, scenery, portrait and other non-specific scene modes as needed. Spin the dial to the SCN settting and you can pick from more precise scene settings, including Candlelight, Night portrait, Kids and all the other scenes types you’ll find on most consumer cameras. Unlike some recent cameras, the number of scene modes isn’t overwhelming though, so finding an appropriate setting is easy.

The only issue you may notice with one of the automatic shooting modes is occasional focusing issues. Usually the camera locks on to focus points quite reliably (although sometimes the focus can be a little bit slow) but every so often it seemed to struggle a bit.

Art mode

The Art mode is interesting and quite indicative of the type of audience Olympus seems to be going after with the E-P1: Instead of the usual Sepia, B&W and other effects you see on most cameras, the Art filters attempt to recreate the types of images normally seen in photographic artworks. Whilst you can easily recreate similar effects using most image editors, being able to preview shots with an art filter enabled did help this amateur photographer to take a few ‘arty’ pictures I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The only drawback to using Art mode is the decreased framerate of the live preview on the LCD and the increased save times. If you have set the camera to record a RAW copy of your images, you can also apply the art effects later using the Olympus software. Art mode is also available whilst shooting movies, but the frame rate is severely limited there as well, limiting its usefulness.

Here are the six art modes offered, click for a larger preview:


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Pop Art

E-P1 hardware - 09Soft Focus

E-P1 hardware - 10Pale & Light Color

E-P1 hardware - 11Light Tone

E-P1 hardware - 12Grainy Film

E-P1 hardware - 13Pin Hole

Manual controls

As previously mentioned, the E-P1 offers full P, A, S, and M modes, allowing the photographer full control over the image settings the camera offers. When using the manual focus ring on the front of a lens, the LCD viewfinder will display  a 7x or 10x magnification of the area in focus – very handy for making sure your subject is in focus. The AF+M mode is particularly useful for beginners, as you can have the camera auto-focus first and then tweak the focus manually before taking your shot. The camera also offers a dedicated Exposure lock button, bracketing options and the ability to tweak pretty much everything else a photography enthusiast might look for.

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Full view, not in focus

E-P1 hardware - 05Turning the focus ring on the lens switches the camera to a close-up ‘focus-assist’ view

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The silver barrel wheel lets you zoom in even closer to focus

Software

As this was a review unit, the camera didn’t come with any software, so I decided to fire up iPhoto before installing Olympus’ own application. iPhoto recognized the camera right away and was able to import JPEG images and movies just fine. RAW images aren’t supported yet, but since this camera has just come to market, that was expected. But Apple frequently updates the RAW import  capabilities built-in to OS X, so I’d expect to see native OS X support for the E-P1’s RAW files soon.

Olympus’ own application, Olympus Master 2, is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it does offer a variety of editing options, including the same Art filters built-in to the camera as well as the ability to import and edit the E-P1 RAW files. I was also pleasantly surprised to see basic video editing and YouTube upload support built-in as well (although the YouTube feature is currently limited to files under 100MB as it hasn’t yet been updated to reflect YouTube’s new 1GB limit). On the other hand, the application does feel a bit sluggish at times and has quite a ‘non-native’ look & feel to it. But kudos to Olympus for providing full functionality to OS X users.

Image quality

Overall I was very impressed by the unedited images out of the camera. Image detail is superb, skin tones are very natural and noise levels are quite acceptable, even at higher ISO levels 640 and above. The built-in image stabilization does a good job in most settings and can even be tweaked to adjust primarily for vertical or horizontal movement. But for shots with longer exposure times you’ll still want to use a tripod. The camera surprisingly lacks an onboard flash, so you’ll need to pick up the optional flash accessory if you plan on taking a lot of pictures in the evening or at night. Low-level performance without a tripod was okay, but not good enough to take acceptable pictures without the flash. I’d imagine the E-P1 would take good enough images of buildings or objects that were sufficiently well lit-up if you had a tripod though.

Here are a few sample shots – there are more in the gallery below (click an image to see a larger version).

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E-P1 Samples - 27

Okay, so the E-P1 didn’t magically turn me into Annie Leibovitz – but, there’s no doubt the the level of image quality it produces places it firmly in entry-level DSLR territory. It handily beat images take with the older Canon D350 I had brief access to and are no comparison to the Panasonic Lumix TZ3 compact I own.

Other reviews will have all the precise details of the luminance curves and pixel-level crops the E-P1 produces, so I’ll just leave it with this: your photos will look great.

Lenses

Experienced photographers will tell you the quality of an image is dictated as much by the lens you use as the camera. The review unit I received came with a 17mm ‘pancake‘ lens as well as the  14-42mm kit lens. The pancake lens has the advantage of making the camera quite compact and as a prime lens also picks up more light, offering better image quality in certain situations. The bulkier zoom does have greater flexibility though for everyday use though and if I had to choose, I’d probably start out with the zoom. Both lenses produce very crisp and clear images and can also produce nice bokeh effect in images, given the right settings. In addition to micro four thirds lenses, E-P1 can also use other lens types via adapters. As the image-stabilization feature is built-in to the camera (and not the lens like on Canon’s DSLRs), it will work regardless of which lens you use.

Switching lenses is quick and easy to do, but won’t want to take too long as the large image sensor is directly exposed once a lens is removed. The E-P1 does have Olympus’ highly-praised anti-dust system, but even so I’d recommend avoiding leaving the sensor exposed too long.

Movie mode

A Video mode on cameras seems to be the “must-have” feature of 2008/2009, with the Canon D500, iPhone 3GS and Nikon D5000 all touting movie modes as one of their major new features. The E-P1 is no exception and can record 720p (1280×720) movies at 30fps. The videos look excellent, very fluid and crisp. Unlike other DSLRs with video modes, the E-P1 doesn’t seem to suffer much (if at all) from the ‘jelly effect’ that causes image distortions during movement. If you’ve selected ‘continual focus’, the camera will keep your image in focus, even whilst you move around. However, in movie mode, the occasional delay in focusing the camera seems to have becomes quite obvious: Whilst you move around, the camera will often need a few attempts to hunt for the ideal focus setting. But even in video mode, you can also choose to use the camera’s manual image controls and adjust the image to your liking. So experienced photographers might want to bypass the continuous focus option and focus manually instead.

The 44Khz audio on the recordings is very clear and audible and the built-in microphone does a great job of picking things up. The E-P1 does lack and external microphone jack though, which is a shame. If you have continuous focus enabled, you’ll be treated to the sound of the very audible autofocus motor every few seconds, which can be a bit distracting. A mic jack would have gone a long way in mitigating that.

Below are a few sample videos that demonstrate the image quality and focus noise. Keep in mind that the YouTube conversions lowers the quality somewhat, compared to the original footage.

Accessories

Olympus included the optical viewfinder, leather camera case and strap accessories with the review unit, so I’ll briefly cover those as well:

Viewfinder

A lot has been made of the fact that the E-P1 lacks a real optical viewfinder. However, as most my photography has only ever been done without one, I can’t say I particularly missed it. The optical viewfinder accessory seems to be designed primarily so salespeople can reassure traditionalists that the E-P1 does have a viewfinder option. Once you clip it into the hot shoe, you basically have a square box through which you can squint at part of your image. Unlike the viewfinder built-in to other DSLRs, it doesn’t actually show you the image coming through the lens, so you might as well just make a circle with your fingers and look through that. Don’t get me wrong: I can see why an eye-level viewfinder with focus and exposure information would be useful, but this isn’t it.

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Leather case & strap

The half-case covers the bottom half of the camera and is made of very nice leather. However if I was after a case, I would be tempted to wait for something that covers more of the camera body than this. The matching leather strap (sold separately) is very nice though and feels quite a bit more secure than the bundled nylon strap.

Conclusion

I’m not a photography expert by any means. But for a while now I have been looking into cameras that offer more control over images and produce better overall results than your average point & shoot. The E-P1 Pen does a great job of bridging the gap between traditional DSLRs and compact cameras, offering very respectable image quality and control in an acceptably compact package. The E-P1 is fun to use, compact enough to take with you to most events and performs really well across the board. Occasional focusing issues and the noisy auto-focus in video mode are minor blemishes on an otherwise superb camera.

Overall: Highly recommended.

If you enjoyed this review, consider supporting the site & purchase your E-P1 at Amazon.com below:

Olympus E-P1 with 14-42mm Zuiko zoom lens

Olympus E-P1 with 17mm Pancake lens

Sample gallery

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Review: Belkin 7-port USB 2.0 Plus Hub

Posted on Jun 14, 2009 in Featured, Mac, Reviews

Belkin7porthubplus03Belkin’s latest version of their popular 7-port hub has been redesigned and adds cable management features. This review will take a look at the changes, design and performance of Belkin’s latest offering for USB junkies.

Design

The first thing you’ll notice is the design Belkin has chosen for this hub: Its rectangular shape means it’ll take up less space on your desk than previous versions, while retaining the two top ports –  useful for USB memory sticks and similar devices. The top ports are also spaced out a bit, so you should be able to connect larger USB devices without any problem as well. The device features an attractive white & blue color scheme – quite a departure from the usual gray, black and silver. Belkin also offer a brown edition of the hub, if white’s not your thing.

Cable Management

At the end of the device Belkin have included a cable loop made out of firm but rubbery plastic The loop can be adjusted slightly, making it easier to cram all your cables inside. The loop allows you to reduce cable clutter, makes for a tidier look and is useful if you need to route one or two of your USB cables to the front of your desk (e.g. for your keyboard). I’m forever losing the business end of my camera’s USB cable behind my desk, so this feature should prove to be very useful.

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Build quality

As expected of a device with this price tag, the build quality is great:  the materials feel very solid and smooth and even the power brick feels less cheap than other generic power adapters. The cable loop material is thick enough to be reass  The only slight issue I encountered: The top USB ports were a little ‘stiff’ at first, making it quite difficult to plug in a regular Apple USB cable. After a few times it did become significantly easier though.

Performance

USB 2.0 obviously has performance rates and limits imposed by the standard itself, so you ask whether performance is an issue at all. Often though, you’ll see reduced throughput if you connect a lot of high-speed devices to a single hub. The 7-port Hub Plus performed tremendously though, even with 2 external harddrives, iPhone, digital camera, Logitech wireless mouse, iMic audio interface and printer connected.

The hub also comes with a power supply. Whilst you can use the hub without power, you’ll need it to use (and charge) devices such as iPhones, iPods or USB-powered harddrives.

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Support & Warranty

Belkin offer a lifetime warranty of this device and I was pleased to find a single folded piece of paper with all their technical support numbers in the box. Whilst this may seem like a given, a lot of manufacturers will bury that kind of information of their websites. I don’t expect needing a lot of support with a hub, but it’s still nice to know it’s available.

Conclusion

The hub performs very well and will also help you to reduce some of the cable clutter on your desk. If you have a MacBook, it’s great to be able to just plug in a single USB plug and have access to all of your devices. Whilst more expensive than generic hubs on the market, it’s thought-out form, design and functionality are well worth it.

Recommended

The Belkin 7-port USB 2.0 Plus Hub: RRP $49.95

Support Jetplane Journal and buy the Belkin 7-port USB Hub Plus at Amazon. (Brown edition)

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JetReader – a free style for NetNewsWire

Posted on Jun 1, 2009 in Featured, Mac

JetReader is a style I’ve created for NetNewsWire, arguably the best RSS Reader for OS X. This is my first attempt at creating a NNW style, so there may be a few glitches – you’ve been warned!

It’s been designed with legibility in mind, as I’ve found that black on grey is typically easier on the eyes – particularly on the new, very glossy, very bright aluminum MacBook. JetReader also uses a relatively large font size, as I often browse headlines on my secondary display, which is usually a little bit further back. Having said that, I’ve designed the style to fit a 13″ screen, even when using NewNewsWire’s 3-column widescreen layout.

Credits

The style is partially inspired by the excellent Readability bookmarklet from the good folks at Arc90.

Credit also goes out to Antonio Carusone of LegiStyles, whose excellent White Serif style served as the inspiration for JetReader’s header styling.

How to install

To install JetReader, simply download it and double-click the “JetReader.nnwstyle” file to install it into NetNewsWire:

Download JetReader

Once installed, select the style from the bottom right corner of the NetNewsWire window to activate it:

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Screenshots

(Click for full-sized preview)

Style sample

JetReader Widescreen Layout


If you have any comments / suggestions / bug-reports, please let me know in the comments.

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