Leica Monovid review

Leica recently introduced the Monovid monocular. Monoculars are more compact than binoculars, but you lose stereo vision, which is why birdwatchers tend to shun them. I myself have a very strong director eye and correspondingly poor binocular vision, so this is not such a big deal for me.


The Monovid is supplied with an accessory screw-on close-up lens that reduces the minimum focus distance. This is useful for butterfly or hummingbird watchers, but the arrangement is clumsier than the (admittedly much larger) Minox Makroskop.


The Monovid is essentially half of a pair of Ultravid 8×20 BL binoculars. The barrel is 3-4mm longer to accommodate the threads for the close-up lens, and it has a goiter-like knurled protrusion towards the end for focusing. The eyecup is the same, and can be either pulled out for normal viewing, or left in for eyeglass wearers. This is a far better arrangement than fold-up rubber eyecups. The leather case for the Monovid is quite bulky, and features a screw thread to hold the close-up lens as well as an ingenious ribbon that pulls the monocular out of the case when you flip the lid open. It also has a magnetic catch unlike the Ultravids’ snap button.

Monovid and Ultravid

Unsurprisingly, the performance is nearly identical, that is to say, stellar. The image is bright (most monoculars are in the 12-15mm aperture range). There is no hint of distortion or chromatic aberration across the field. It is quite sensitive to perfectly centered eye placement, specially when you are wearing eyeglasses, otherwise you will black out.

Sadly, the price is not half that of the binoculars, closer to two thirds. Considering that it is not all that much more compact and you lose stereo vision, if you are considering one, I would recommend the more versatile Ultravid 8×20 BL (or the cheaper BR) instead. Another option to consider is the respected line of Zeiss monoculars (most are more compact than the Monovid, but the 8×20 is nearly the same size and not as well built) or the slower but smaller Nikon “high grade” monocular series (unfortunately the 7×15 has been discontinued, but old new stock is still readily available).

Update (2012-11-26):

I purchased a new-old-stock Nikon High Grade 5×15 monocular. It is much lighter than the Monovid, has much closer focusing at 60cm vs 1.80m, no futzing with accessory lenses required (although to be fair the Leica focuses to 25-30cm with the close-up lens).

The fit and finish on the Japanese-made monoculars (vs. Portugal, not Germany, for the Monovid) is superb, with deeply engraved and paint-filled markings (even superior in execution to AI-s Nikkors). The supplied case is made of genuine leather, unfortunately it does not include a belt clip. The aluminium shell is not monocoque like the Monovid, and seems less robust. There is also no mention of the Nikon being nitrogen-purged and waterproof. The finger indents make it quite comfortable to hold and the hexagonal cross-section means it is unlikely to roll off a table. The neck strap on the Nikon is also lighter and far more practical than the bulky hand strap on the Leica. Surprisingly, it is not easier to hand-hold despite the lower magnification – the heft of the Monovid stabilizes it somewhat against shake.

The optics are excellent. It’s hard to compare to the Leica, due to the lower magnification and aperture, but like the Leica, the image is clear across the frame with no color aberrations across the frame. There seems to be some slight chromatic aberration at the very edges that you don’t get with the Leica.

The Nikon 5×15 HG is discontinued, but it appears in their 2012-2013 sports optics catalog, along with the 7×15 HG, so there is a possibility it will be resurrected. It is readily available from Japan on eBay and occasionally Amazon as well.

Update (2017-02-21):

I seem to be collecting monoculars. Some other models:

  • Steiner 8×22 Miniscope: plastic piece of junk, avoid it.
  • Minox 8×25 Macroscope: very bulky, decent but not astounding optics, the focusing knob is not very ergonomic. It’s sole saving grace is its very close focusing distance. It’s best to think of it as a loupe with very long clearance, and as such I would expect it to be ideal for naturalists, entomologists, field geologists and the like.
  • Nikon HG 7×15: much the same as the 5×15, with narrower field of view, smaller sweet spot for eye placement and shorter eye relief. The 5x is a better monocular in most circumstances, if you really need the higher magnification you are better off getting the Monovid or proper binoculars.

Amano Ocumare Milk

Amano Ocumare DarkAmano, based in Salt Lake City, makes the best chocolate in the USA, their Ocumare bar, using only Venezuelan criollo cacao (the best in the world).

art_pollardThe founder, Art Pollard (photo taken 2 years ago at Fog City News in San Francisco) claims he gets superior results from roasting at high altitude in Salt Lake City, but I think superior conching technique is primarily to credit.
They recently introduced milk chocolate bars, the Jembrana and Ocumare. Despite its lovely green wrapper, the Jembrana leaves to be desired — it just doesn’t taste chocolatey enough. The Ocumare Milk comes through with wonderful texture, a rich, complex cocoa flavor while avoiding over-sweetness, the downfall of too many milk chocolates, specially in the USA.
It also avoids the harshness of some bars made by chocolatiers new to the world of milk chocolate — the abysmal Scharffen-Berger 68% cocoa “dark milk” bar comes to mind.

Amano Ocumare MilkAmano Jembrana Milk

Olympus E-P1 hands-on impressions

I had the opportunity to handle an Olympus E-P1 camera at Keeble & Shuchat in Palo Alto. There has been quite a bit of excitement on sites like Rangefinder Forum and many were expecting this to be the first pocketable camera that could compete with SLRs in image quality.

The Sigma DP1 and DP2 were actually the first cameras with large sensors and reasonable pixel counts, bucking the marketing-driven trend towards too many pixels squeezed onto too small a sensor chip, with horrible noise as the result. I own both, and their image quality is indeed stunning, but they have one Achilles’ heel — speed, or the lack thereof.

The E-P1 is very compact, almost the same size with the 17mm as the Sigma DP2 (some photos released suggested it was closer to the Leica M8). The build quality is fine, and it is nowhere near as heavy as some early users suggested it was. They probably compared it to a plastic fantastic compact rather than a more substantial camera like a Leica or a DSLR.

I was surprised to find the 17mm AF hunted quite a bit, overshooting and then backtracking. Oddly, it did this even on the next shot when the lens was already in focus. I don’t know if this is specific to the 17mm lens, but it is certainly not encouraging.

From my test shots, I was also distinctly unimpressed by the optical quality of the lens, or the noise performance at ISO 1600. The Four-Thirds and Micro Four Thirds formats are hobbled by sensors one half the size of the APS-C used in most entry-level DSLRs, with predictably higher levels of noise and limited dynamic range. I had to go back to 2003 and my then Canon EOS 10D to find similar levels of noise. The Canon Rebel XT was definitely superior in high-ISO performance, let alone current SLRs. Olympus fanboys seem to be in denial about the limitations of Four-Thirds sensors, but you cannot fight against physics and expect to win.

The other disappointing thing about the 17mm lens is that it is not particularly sharp, specially for a prime lens of relatively modest maximum aperture. The pictures were nowhere near as crisp as the lovely Sigma lenses on the DP1 and DP2. This is all the more a let-down as Olympus was renowned for the quality of its miniaturized prime lenses in the days of the ground-breaking OM system. I wasn’t expecting Pentax SMC Limited pancake lens levels of performance (we are talking of a lens one third the price, after all), but there is no point in having 12 megapixels (at least 6 too far in my book) if the lens can’t actually exploit them.

I had preordered an E-P1 with the 17mm kit lens and viewfinder from Amazon. After handling the E-P1 and taking a few test shots, I canceled my order.

30 years after, the king of calculators rides again

In 1986, I purchased a Hewlett-Packard HP-15C scientific programmable calculator, for $120 or so. That was a lot of money back then, specially for a penniless high school student, but worth every penny. I lived in France at the time, and HP calculators cost roughly double the price there, so I waited for a vacation visit to my aunt in Los Angeles to get it. HP calculators are professional tools for engineers and you couldn’t find them at the local department store like TI trash, so I asked my aunt to mail order it for me prior to my visit. I still remember the excitement at finally getting it and putting it through its paces.

The HP-15C is long discontinued but I still keep mine as a prized heirloom, even though I have owned far more capable HPs over time (the HP-28C, HP-48SX, HP-200LX and more recently HP-35S and HP-33S) and given most of these away. The HP-15C’s financial cousin, the HP-12C is still in production today and has a tremendous cult following.

The reason for the HP Voyager series’ lasting power is many-fold:

  • Reverse Polish Notation (RPN), HP’s distinctive way of entering calculations. For instance, to calculate the area of a 2m radius circle, you would type 2 x2 π x instead of the more common algebraic (AOS) notation on TI or Casio calculators π x 2 x2 =. With practice, RPN is much more natural and efficient than algebraic notation. When I went from high school to college, the number of RPN users went from 2 (myself and a classmate who owned a HP-11C) to over 50%.
  • The ergonomics of the calculators are top-notch, from the landscape orientation to the inimitable HP keyboards with their firm and positive response.
  • They offered far superior functionality, like the HP-15C’s built-in integrator, equation solver, matrix and complex algebra, or the HP-12C’s financial equation solver.

The HP-15C offers the right balance of power and usability. The HP-48SX was far more powerful, but if you stopped using it for more than a couple months, you would completely forget how to use it. The more advanced functionality like symbolic integration is better performed on a Mac or PC using Mathematica or the like, in any case.

Unfortunately, Carly Fiorina gutted the HP calculator department in one of the more egregious of her blunders during her disastrous tenure as CEO of HP, outsourcing R&D and manufacturing from Corvallis, Oregon to China. HP has been trying to regain lost ground, but it is an uphill battle as TI has had ample time to entrench itself.

All this long exposition leads to the news HP has released an app (and for other models like the HP-12C)


I benchmarked it by integrating the normal distribution (f LBL A x2 CHS ex 2 ENTER π x √x / RTN) between -3 and +3. On the original HP-15C, this takes about 34 seconds. On the iPhone emulator, it is near instantaneous. On the nonpareil emulator running on my octo-core Mac Pro, it’s more like a minute…


Ty Couz

One of the best values in San Francisco dining, their $8.50 scallop galette (Breton for buckwheat crêpe).

Update (2012-07-13):

Sadly, it closed a few months ago.