Ronin-M

I recently bought a Panasonic GH4 in order to capture better quality movies for personal use – mostly family and hobby related. I had always had an interest in photography, but for whatever reason, video was never an interest of mine until recently. Strangely enough, it was the acquisition of a Phantom 3 drone and a powerful Alienware desktop that spurred my interest in videography after seeing how easy it is to edit high quality movies these days.

Since I was already invested in the Micro Four Thirds system, and the Full Frame Sony A7S II would require not just the acquisition of a new body, but also new lenses(!) I decided to get the Panasonic GH4. It shoots 4k video, records internally, and has a very good codec. All the major boxes were checked. It is also being regularly improved upon via Firmware upgrades, which I always find commendable.

After this, I started to look into stabilization. I really wanted to do some “run and gun” type video with my children. With them playing in the yard, going out places, etc.

Here is the kind of video I was hoping to capture with the Ronin. Keep in mind this is the very first thing I shot after balancing the unit, and my very first time out with the GH4 as well. A lot of operator inexperience going on. Oh, and I have a background in photography, not video! No color grading was done – this is the “Standard” color profile, mostly because I still haven’t touched any of the color profiles better suited for color grading. It is still more neutral than the other more punchy color profiles.

I have to say that I was very impressed with how “cinematic” (whatever that is!) the shots can feel, even with my novice level abilities. For the most part, the shots when moving are pretty stable. I need to dial in my pan control on the Ronin (done via app, or direct USB connection to the unit itself) because there was a bit too much lag for tracking on that axis. Those are all things that will take time to get right, based upon the kind of thing you are wanting to shoot.

Here are some close ups of the Ronin-M. There are three brushless motors that stabilize the camera, which you can see below:

These motors counter any of the rotational forces that the operator puts upon the camera. The camera then appears to “float” on the gimbal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Camera balanced on the gimbal.

Unfortunately, the difficult part in setting up a Ronin-M is balancing your camera on the gimbal. If you have a Zoom lens, make sure to set it to the focal length you will be shooting at before it goes on the gimbal. Also make sure that all accessories are mounted on the camera (including, for instance, a shotgun mic), and make sure the battery and the memory card are in the unit. You basically do not want to add even an ounce of weight that changes the weight distribution after you balance the camera on the gimbal.

It took me over an hour to balance the camera my first go-around. Lots of frustration, and trying to figure out how on earth this could possibly be done in a timely fashion. After going to bed, and trying it out a second time the next day, I found that it only took me about ten minutes to get it balanced. I expect the next time will be quicker still. DJI says it should take about five minutes to setup and balance. Assuming that your camera configuration doesn’t change much between setups, that’s probably a good estimate for an average user.

These are a couple of the areas where you will have to balance the camera. At times, I found it quite finicky to make precise motions. Note: The Gimbal will still work if the camera is not perfectly balanced, however.

At times I found it quite finicky to make precise adjustments while doing the balancing. Note: The gimbal will still work if the camera is not perfectly balanced, however for optimal results, and improved battery life (and I’d assume motor life, thinking long term) you will want to make sure that it is balanced.

The Ronin-M weighs about five lbs, plus your camera and lens combo. This is not a light piece of gear. There is no backpack or harness either, so you will have to bear the weight yourself. I am just starting off with this piece of kit, so I will write more updates in the future as I get a chance to. In the meantime, feel free to ask questions in the comment box below.

Nissan NV3500 HD – the real life Canyonero

Review

Seventeen years ago, Hank Williams Jr. sang a parody jingle about a Sport Utility Vehicle that was “‘Twelve yards long, two lanes wide/Sixty-five tons of American pride!’” This song was a satire of the SUV craze that had exploded during the late 1990s, and so it was on an episode of The Simpsons that America was introduced to The Canyonero.

I was twenty years old when that episode aired, and a family was the furthest thing from my mind. And yet, today I am the proud owner of a vehicle that bears more than a passing resemblance to the famed Canyonero. How did this happen?

The right vehicle for larger families

Branding

Someone looked at this panel and said, “You know would really set this off? More badges, letters and numbers”

Well, as these stories often go- boy meets girl, boy somehow manages to dupe girl into marrying him, then boy and girl have children. Eventually they outgrow their sedan, and then their minivan after it. After having four children, and wanting more – the minivan starts to look awfully cramped. Especially for the long trips they plan to take across country. Even with only four children, minivans start to feel small when taking all the gear and luggage that goes with the family.

If you have grandparents, friends, or even a pet along for the ride, then things quickly become harder for a minivan to cope with. We also had interest in taking advantage of several ministry opportunities that might require a larger vehicle.

So, if you find yourself in the same boat (ha!) as we are, what are your options? Many eight seater SUV vehicles are hardly eight seaters in practice. They suffice for short trips, but it is often a problem to take eight people comfortably along in day to day life. Even going to the grocery store with eight people can be a problem, as once the third row is in place, the cargo capacity starts to approach that of a Miata.

GM will sell you a Suburban that seats eight passengers, along with the cargo capacity for those eight passengers, but SUVs are typically difficult to cope with when it comes to trying to get into the third row, especially when the children are in carseats.

They also typically have very little headroom as the car is built to have ground clearance and this makes the passenger compartment shorter in height. Minivans are much better with vertical headroom, and they also have an aisle for easy access to the third row, but minivans that seat eight passengers (Odyssey and Sienna) cannot actually seat eight if car seats enter the equation.

It is also worth noting that vehicles that seat eight people can often be pricey. A new Suburban starts around $50,000. To us at least, that is a lot of money for the family car.

At this point, it was starting to look like a full sized passenger van was our best option, and we started to survey the field.

Eventually we found that families in the same boat as us were very pleased with the NV3500 Passenger Van, and so we started to do some research on these. For those who are unaware, the NV3500 Passenger van is the passenger version of the commercial van by the same name. Undoubtedly, Nissan envisioned this vehicle for livery services. This van would make a very nice hotel shuttle. To Nissan’s great surprise however, they didn’t seem to anticipate that large families would also enjoy this vehicle and as such, they severely underestimated demand for this van from families. These vans seem to be flying off of the dealer lots, as they are great for large families.

SUV, Van or Both?

SUV, Van or Both?

One of the compromises with the NV3500 over other passenger vans is its size. The van seats 12, but is the length of a 15 passenger van from Ford or Chevy. The size compromise is because the hood of the vehicle is more like an SUV; the engine does not intrude into the passenger compartment, unlike GM, Ford, Dodge, and Mercedes fullsize vans. This is great for a family, because there is no noise intruding into the cabin, the cabin stays nice and cool, and the vans are easier to service.

On the down side, this adds greatly to the length and the bulk of the vehicle. It is easily 2 feet longer than its counterparts from Ford and Chevy.

Interior

Interior

Due to where the engine sits, the NV3500 does its best impression of a large domestic SUV rather than a commercial van from the front, but becomes more van-like the further back you go.

The styling of this beast reflects this. The Nissan takes on different personalities from the various angles that you look at it from. From the front, it looks like an intimidating SUV, from the rear it looks like a cargo van, and from the side it looks like a hideous mash-up of the two that should never have left Frankenstein’s lab.

It truly looks like two design teams worked on this vehicle. One was told they were making a Nissan Titan based SUV, and the other team was told to make a commercial van inspired by the Nissan Cube. Somewhere near the A-pillar those two teams must have met.

Be that as they may – the looks do eventually grow on you.

How does it drive?

This is an intimidating vehicle to get behind the wheel of. First, unless you have running boards it is a long step up to climb into the vehicle. Then, forget about having rearward visibility. Those headrests which make the van so safe for your passengers are actually horrible for visibility.

The first thing that someone who is used to driving a regular car needs to get a hold of is: Use and trust your mirrors! The mirrors in this van will make your life much easier. Learn to trust the concave mirror which gives you tremendous visibility especially to the sides of the van (massive blindspots otherwise). Ever paid attention to a semi? Look at how many mirrors they have – those guys rely on them.

Interior Features

Dual Climate Control, Backup Camera and Navigation comes in the up level SL trim.

Our van does have the rear backup camera, as well as sonar units on the front and back of the vehicle. All of which are really helpful and handy to have. But use and trust your mirrors.

They are also handy when judging whether you are parked “between the lines” in a parking space. You can see where your back wheels are and the sides of the van in relation to the parking spot lines. Easy enough to judge whether you need to re-position yourself.

The van is really easy to drive. It has a nice turning radius, which makes it easier than expected to navigate. Low speed steering is not highly boosted so will take a little more effort in parking lots than you might be used to in a car, but nothing too strenuous.

It has a nice plush ride, and feels like a big Body on Frame SUV. It is a fantastic companion on long road trips. The driver and passenger seats in the SL trim are some of the nicest I’ve ever sat in.

The V8 in our van has a lot of torque, and never feels bogged down. It is not a sports car, but it certainly can get out of its own way. Throttle response is not exactly crisp, but then you should never feel like you are in a hurry driving this car – if you are, you are likely to get into a bad wreck. There is a lot of mass in this vehicle. The handling is as to be expected, awful. But not as terrible as you might think. Let me put it to you this way: Our Town and Country feels like a Go-Cart after driving this – but this van is still less floaty than the land yachts of yore.

The vehicle does have stability control and other electronic aids to help keep it on the road and shiny side up. Braking is competent. Our minivan is better. Plan to keep extra distance around you.

On the plus side, this is the first vehicle that I’ve driven that intimidates your average Texas pickup truck driver. Even “Texas Edition” pickup trucks scurry out of the way when they see us coming.

The NV3500 can tow almost 9,000 lbs., and so this van makes for an excellent choice to pull a camper with, assuming you don’t need four wheel drive to get to your campground. The mirrors extend out for towing, and there is a tow mode for the transmission – at least on our model.

Want attention? Skip the Lamborghini.

I have owned a Corvette before. The Vette would attract a little bit of attention, but since Corvettes are common enough these days, it wasn’t like I was cruising down the boulevard in a Lambo. Now, I have never owned a true exotic car before – but if I had one, I would imagine the attention I would receive would be much akin to driving the Nissan NV3500.

If you drive one – be prepared for the open mouthed stares as you come lumbering down the road. When you park, everyone wants to know what this thing is.

How many does this seat? Does it have a V8? Who makes this thing? Is it animal, mineral or vegetable?

With the tinted windows, and the seamless looking glass panels, it has the look of a limousine from certain quarters, so I think some people think they are going to catch a glimpse of their favorite sporting team, or perhaps a celebrity passed out in a drunken stupor. Hate to break it to you, but you are more likely to find children screaming for a juice box. Which proves the point that the difference between a celebrity and a toddler is often age, not maturity.

Be that as it may, with chromed bumpers, and chromed wheels, and chromed grill – it truly will blind you in the bright Texas sun.

She blinded me with chrome wheels

She blinded me with chrome wheels

Even the valve stem covers are … chrome. This thing is blinding when clean and in full day light. I didn’t start to wear sunglasses until I owned this thing. I’m serious about that.

Nitrogen

Our dealer installed options including … Nitrogen filled tires. At least we got this snazzy N2 valve stem cover. I wonder if they will sell me an “O” valve stem cover if we just replace it with Oxygen.

Child friendly features

First, the van has a sliding door. This is crucially important when you have children. Most full sized vans have barn doors on the side, which means that you are likely to make those whom you park next to very unhappy as children fling doors open. In cramped parking situations, it is much easier to open a sliding door. In addition, a sliding door is much easier for a child to manage. Our six year old is able to open this van’s sliding doors without any problems.

Sliding door

Sliding door means no door dings for people parked next to you! Also means that you don’t have to worry about how much room you need to open the side doors.

In the NV3500 the seatbelts mounted to the seats. This is a crucial difference between many other passenger vans and the NV3500. The NV3500 seats are self contained pods that contain the seatbelt integrated into the seat. This means that they are not mounted on hard points in the van ceiling like other passenger vans, which makes for a nice clean interior when you take the seats out, or when walking through the van.

Seat mounted cupholders are perfect for holding beverages, or ... baseballs.

Seat mounted cupholders are perfect for holding beverages, or … baseballs.

The van also has integrated headrests into each seat. This is something that was missing from the older Ford and GM vans. The newer Ford vans (the Transit) do have headrests, but these are an important safety feature that protects against whiplash, and so we thought they were an important consideration when hauling our children. Other than space however, there really aren’t any more amenities to speak of for the children. There are no integrated DVD players available from the factory. If you wanted one, you’d have to get your dealer to install one. Given that all of our children have access to computers and tablets, we didn’t think that it was an important addition at this time.If we have more little ones that need passive entertainment, we might consider it in the future. For now, we are just grateful we don’t have to hear Disney movies blaring in the cabin during roadtrips anymore. Important safety consideration – this is one of the few fullsized vans that has full side curtain airbags. This is an important safety consideration when you are taking many little ones with you.

Toys

There aren’t many too speak of compared to plus SUVs and Minivans. Ours has GPS including Bluetooth connectivity to your phone for hands free operation. It has the sonar units on front and back of the vehicle. These can be annoying as they are always on, even when driving. But it does tell you when someone is too close to your bumpers. Ours also has a backup camera. There are plenty of power ports. Two three prong power outlets (one in the front, and one in the back), and two 12V ports. In addition, ours has the USB connection to the stereo system for a smartphone, which can also charge your device. Plenty of power to keep everyone’s devices happy. Given that most of us have plenty of phones and tablets and laptops these days – having power is probably a big consideration for a vehicle that is meant for roadtrips. The NV3500 delivers on this.

Challenges and Compromises

A vehicle such as the NV3500 has some challenges that made me appreciate the constraints that the designers of vehicles even as large as the Suburban work inside of. There are many things about consumer vehicle design that I took for granted. Having this van made me appreciate the box within which most designers have to work with, while still providing a reasonably roomy ride.

Garages – The van will not fit height wise in most garages. It requires 84″ of clearance (7 feet) and so will not fit in our garage. This is a bummer, because we have enough space otherwise. The thoughts of redesigning our home to accommodate it are not appealing, so we will not be doing so, especially with an HOA. The vehicle also will therefore have a hard time fitting into many parking garages. Make sure to keep an eye out on the clearance of any parking garages you visit. I had to take the van one day to work, because I was going to get it prepped for a roadtrip, and wanted to get it washed, etc. before we headed out. I saw that the van will not fit into the parking garage. Fortunately we have a lot of parking spaces outside.

Carwashes – Yes, carwashes are going to be a problem for this van. Our dealership has given us lifetime hand carwashes, so we have a little less of a problem with this. But it can be a significant challenge (and expense!) to get this thing washed.

Gas mileage – This is a commercial vehicle, and so doesn’t even have an EPA gas mileage rating. We get about 12-15 miles per gallon. 15 on the highway, 12 in the city. Budget accordingly.

Insurance – My insurance company (Costco/Ameriprise) didn’t even know what to do with this. We kept the other two vehicles on Ameriprise, and had to take out a separate insurance policy with State Farm who also holds our homeowner’s policy. I was an idiot for not thinking about this before purchasing the vehicle. It all worked out, but insurance will be a little more pricey with this van, than with your average vehicle.

Price and Conclusion

The NV3500 will run you between $32k-$39k brand new depending on engine (V6, or V8) and trim level. Compared to a Suburban this vehicle is a bargain, assuming you are ready to live with the compromises and the rockstar level attention that this thing brings you. Suburbans start at around $50k brand new, and don’t get much better gas mileage than this van. I think the van is charming, is a little offbeat, has character and most importantly is good for our family and our lifestyle. We’ve only had it for a little over a month now, so I will update our blog with any issues we run into in the future, including a post on how Nissan can better suit this vehicle for families for the next iteration of this design.