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A while ago I wrote a review of Gyles Brandreth's period novel Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders. Now Lynn Truss has brought out a comedy using a remarkably similar formula. It consists of picking a famous historical figure, preferably one with a larger than life personality, surrounding him with lots of other famous people from the same historical period, and adding a modicum of plot. As in any novel the story is important of course, but what's really important is the characters - most of whom are already familiar - like the cast of an intellectually respectable soap opera (or in this case an old-fashioned farce). In its use of actual people and events it's a development of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman, only in the current variation almost everybody's real.
In Lynn Truss's offering the title character is of course Alfred Lord Tennyson in his later years living in a Isle of Wight mansion, chronically unwashed and isolated from the real world - Truss can paint fairly scathing and cruel portraits of her characters. None more scathing than Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll who comes across as loathsomely obsequious and creepy. Other players are GF Watts the famous painter, and his 16 year old wife Ellen Terry who became the even more famous actress. Then there's Julia Cameron who was a pioneer photographer in the 1860s but is largely forgotten now, as is Orson Fowler the American Phrenologist.
Lynn Truss must have had enormous fun researching the book. I certainly did reading it. The plot hardly matters as long as the characters keep colliding with each other and sparks fly.
There seem to be a bewildering choice of CD players around - there are 55 listed on Dooyoo from Phillips alone. However to narrow the choice a little, Phillips players with a model number starting 'A' play audio CDs, and those with a model number starting 'EXP' play both audio and MP3 CDs (EXP standing for 'expanium' - no idea what it means).
I've accumulated / inherited three portable CD players over the years. The Phillips isn't the best looking or the easiest to use, but it is the one I use the most - generally plugged into external speakers on the kitchen window sill. The reason it's my preferred choice is the ability to play MP3 discs which last much, much longer than an audio CD - so no need to keep changing disks with messy hands during a long day's cooking. Why not an MP3 player? Well I already have a collection of MP3 disks and the EXP 3361 seems to pump out more volume to un-amplified portable speakers.
This model also plays WMA encoded disks which have even longer playing time but are a less common format. Both MP3 and WMA can be organised into albums
The controls unfortunately aren't at all intuitive - more effort seems to have gone into an 'artistic' design for the buttons than ease of use. However once you've got used to them they do the usual jobs, volume, skip track, hold, plus for MP3 / WMA play there are skip album, shuffle and repeat options. There's also 'dynamic bass boost' but I'm never certain if that improves my music or not.
At times, especially with MP3 and when skip protection is engaged, the motor can make a very audible whirring but overall it's not too distracting.
On the side of the unit there is a combined headphones and line out socket, and a power socket for an external 3v supply. An interesting feature is that two alternative covers are supplied for the battery compartment - one to accommodate two AAA batteries and the other for a pair of the larger AA size. Rechargeables work fine and battery life with the AAs I always use is reasonable.
I needed an external DVD in order to reload the Windows operating system from a recovery disk onto a Netbook computer that didn't have a DVD built-in.
Just why the computer manufacturer supplied the recovery disk on media the computer couldn't read is another question. However an external DVD connected by USB worked a treat - no set up necessary, basically just take it out of the box and plug it in. USB v2 of course is almost essential to get the transfer speed.
As a purchase for a one-off job the Toshiba DVD drive is quite expensive. I gave up burning disks as a way of backing up data long ago in favour of USB sticks and an external hard disk. However, although purchased only out of necessity it has become a useful adjunct, not permanently plugged into the Netbook but brought out occasionally to burn a photo disk for a friend, rip a CD, or play a DVD. It does all of these things with no fuss and more reliably than I've experienced with internal optical drives on a desktop machine before now.
What I would say is that prices vary enormously if you shop around online. If it's just a one-off emergency I'd say go for the cheapest. If you want it for more intensive, everyday use it may be worth paying more.
This is now an ageing model so anyone looking at reviews I'd expect to be considering purchase on a second-hand basis. Toshiba have always been 'workhorses' rather than super-build quality so take a close look at the particular machine you're thinking of buying, see it in operation, and haggle the price down to real bargain level.
My own experience is that my Satellite 1410 is still in active service after several years of constant use, but does need a few prosthetics to help it along. The screen, big and non-reflective matt, has packed in - or rather the illuminating element behind it, repair is apparently uneconomical but I plug a Samsung external monitor into the VGA socket and I'm back in business !
I run Windows XP and with the 1410's processor and small amount of RAM certainly wouldn't recommend Vista. If I didn't need some windows-only software I'd switch to Linux, but as it is the 0.5MB RAM just about copes.
Keyboard, though a bit dusty by now, is still a joy to use. One of the three USB ports (v1 only) is taken up by a mouse (although the touchpad is okay for short tasks), and another by a big external hard disk to make up for the 1410's very limited capacity by current standards.
Sony have a reputation for being at the top end of the PC quality spectrum and in terms of build and design I believe it's well-deserved.
Performance-wise of course it's all down to the choice made by vendors from the range of standard components available to all case manufacturers - Sony tend to make good sensible choices rather than radical ones so expect to be satisfied with performance rather than blown away by it.
The Vaio is a refined-looking laptop, quite elegant in design. The casing feels solid although weight might be an issue if resting on your lap for extended use. Keyboard has a nice response, touchpad and buttons are intuitive, the big screen fills the inside lid with a shiny glass surface rather than matt which can, with a dark image, result in room reflections, but even so, and realising it's a squarish rather than wide-screen display, it makes watching DVD playback an enjoyable experience.
Three USB slots is, I find, less than I need so adding an expansion hub is recommended.
Yes, I can see it's a good idea, it does increase the grip although it's a bit 'belt and braces' since there's already a wrist strap to stop the Wii controller flying through the glass of the tv screen at the end of a long tennis rally.
It's well designed and doesn't obstruct any of the controller buttons except the power switch (though the location of that is marked and can be pressed through the rubber), and doesn't seem to affect the efficiency of communication between the remote and console. It does make it a business having to stretch and pull it on and off when the batteries need changing through.
I call it rubber, mine is black and resembles tyre rubber - in fact it's made of silicon so should be durable and resistant to perishing - so far no signs of wear at all.
If only putting this sure-grip sleeve on the remote stopped the Wii software from popping up al those annoying nag messages to hold the controller securely then it would be a real boon, unfortunately, clever though it is, the controller can't detect if it does have a sleeve on or not - so I keep being told to do what I've already done. Very Annoying.
The big selling point of the Sebo for me was the filtration system. Sebo isn't the cheapest model on the market but if it does a better job of capturing dust and pet hairs etc then it's worth the extra.
Of course just how much more effective it is than rivals is almost impossible for an amateur to measure - but looking at the quality of the machine and components I'd guess it lives up to the claims.
It's a very easy machine to use - the on-off switch is conveniently placed on the handle, accessories have sensible mounting points, the long cable can be easily deployed and rewound.
In terms of efficiency it sweeps a carpet with satisfying results - the nozzle extension is needed for edges and corners and occasionally heavier pieces of debris but again it's easy enough to convert between floor beater and nozzle nodes.
When it's necessary to change the dust bag you may find the process a bit tricky until you get used to it but of course it's designed to give a good dust seal between bag and machine. Once mastered, and assuming as with any vacuum you don't let it get over-full, then replacing with a new bag is a quick and mess-free operation.
First reaction - shock and horror at how expensive these things are. True, a lot of heavy metal goes into making them, but they're hardly cutting-edge technology. Still, a cooker is an essential so there's no option but to pay the price.
The Elan is dual fuel - 5 gas hobs, electric grill and two electric ovens. These are controlled by 9 identical large knobs and five identical-looking buttons arranged across the front of the cooker. There are small pictograms next to each of these to explain their function but a large safety bar acros the front can obscure them from some angles -necessitating that you lean down to get a closer look. The safety bar of course is a Good Thing as it keeps you away from naked flames, but the controls are hardly intuitive and need time to become familiar with. Overall the cooker looks to have been inspired by the great days of Victorian heavy engineering rather than something from the electronic age.
The hobs are switched on by twisting and holding the appropriate knob in while pressing the igniter button - a two hand operation so turning a ring on accidentally is unlikely, although if you're not quick with the button a lot of gas seems to escape into the kitchen. A large 'Wok' burner dominates the centre of the cooker top. Reading the manual it doesn't seem to be suitable for anything except a Wok, which is disappointing as it gives out by far the most heat.
The electric grill is at waist rather than eye level but has a handy slide-out drawer to make checking on progress easy.
I always believed in 'cooking by gas' but the modern electric fan ovens have converted me - they're fast and efficient. The 'tall' oven on the right of the Elan is a simple fan oven, marred only by the door having what appears to be a useful temperature gauge on the outside but which in fact has no function at all - sorry, pretend dials get no points from me.
The slightly larger left-hand oven is multi-function - heating from top, bottom or both elements, fan on or off, fan only with no heating for defrost. I've yet to find a use for some of the combinations; but the roasting tray attachment to the door - which means when you open it the joint automatically swings out for inspection - is a clever and helpful accessory.
The salesman made a great deal about the BMW being rear-wheel drive, well after three years of driving one I can't say that makes a whole lot of difference under normal conditions - maybe on a high-powered BMW it would, but the 116 is for everyday motoring and it'll never leave a Porsche standing at the traffic lights!
Call me shallow but the reason I bought it was simply because of its looks. I knew that a BMW should be a good car, but then frankly most cars are these days, and if we allowed our heads to rule our hearts we'd all be driving Toyotas. But the sleek sculpted lines of the 116 with its shark-like distinctive front end are something I'm always going to admire in the car park.
Inside the low lines mean there's not much headroom even for someone of average male height. The driving position is comfortable though, and the instrument display very user-friendly - if it's within your budget I'd recommend going for optional extras like rear parking sensors, electrically folding wing mirrors, top-end instrument computer - they do make a useful contribution to the motoring experience and it's a pity more of them aren't standard.
Performance on the 116 as mentioned isn't spectacular, it'll keep up with the average family saloon and on congested British roads what more do you need, but from a standing start there's nothing to make the blood race. Trying to get some oomph by keeping it in a lower gear causes the engine management system to take over and govern down the revs - in fact this is the only car I recall where that big rev counter on the dashboard served much purpose. Once you've got up to the speed limit though its a rock-steady and pleasantly quiet drive.
After three years experience it's a car I've consistently enjoyed. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a smallish car for both town and long-distance journeys and has the budget to indulge in image (nothing wrong with a bit of flash!). But is it a car I love so much I'd go straight out and buy another one? - no, been there, done that, and it's time to move on to test if there's greener grass elsewhere.
My Electrolux dishwasher came as part of a package built-in with kitchen units supplied by Wickes - so obviously the price paid reflects the choice of specific casing (and whatever offers on combined purchases Wickes have on at the time). Obviously (since we bought it) we thought the overall price was reasonable.
The integrated option does look attractive in the kitchen - the wooden door is identical to all the other kitchen units apart from a horizontal rather than vertical handle - because the dishwasher door swings down as opposed to a sideways swinging cupboard door.
My previous dishwasher had been a stand-alone unit and one advantage of this (not thought of by me until afterwards) is that you can readily see from the indicator lights when the wash cycle has finished. If the buttons and leds are hidden away behind a wooden door you can't, especially (though a point in its favour) as this machine is very quiet in operation. There is an audible end signal of several (again rather quiet) beeps but that's only useful if you happen to be in the kitchen when it sounds. So, there are pros and cons to having everything hidden away - on balance I'd say it's worth it.
In terms of wash efficiency the machine does what's expected of it. I use the 5in1 dishwasher tablets rather than separate powder, salt and rinse-aid, and found on the first few washes that cups and plates weren't coming out completely dry - filling the rinse-aid dispenser cured this but it's an extra chore and wasn't necessary with my previous dishwasher when using 5in1 tablets.
Capacity and loading also seemed slightly inferior to my old machine. It's a full-size model but soon gets full with the cups, plates, dishes etc from just two people - I'd imagine a big family would need to do repeated washes.
I haven't found anywhere to safely load large kitchen knives either, where my old machine had a knife rack this only has a cup rack.
On the plus side this device undeniably works and does the job quickly and quietly. The controls - found on top of the door after opening it - are extremely straightforward offering a choice of heavy, normal or light load, plus economy or rinse-only cycles. Build quality is solid and plumbing-in only needs a cold water supply. The manual is written in a straightforward and understandable manner.
I used a Le Creuset metal enamelled kettle for many years - stylish and quite expensive (currently £47 at John Lewis) and built to last forever. So when I found myself without gas for a week due to building work I bought the cheapest electric kettle I could find as an emergency replacement.
Months later, gas restored, and I'm still using it - it's a very good kettle. For the price it's astonishing.
It looks stylish enough I wouldn't be ashamed to have it on my worktop if Good Housekeeping magazine came around to take pictures, It has capacity for 8 cups according to the transparent water guage at the side, but the element is low enough in the tapered base to make economically boiling just one cup possible. The guage is useful to fill the right amount for in-between numbers of cups, and the kettle boils as quickly as could reasonably be expected.
Both the heating ring and smooth plastic inside seem very resistant to furring in my hard water area (unlike the metal Le Creuset), and access should you want to clean the inside is easy. A quick wipe-down is all that's necessary to clean the exterior.
There's a red indicator light in the 'on' switch at the top of the handle which makes it obvious when the kettle is switched on and which automatically shuts off when the water boils. The nice, big handle stays cool and makes pouring easy - no drips or dribbles from the spout either.
Minor criticisms - it can be slightly awkward keeping the hinged lid open when filling from the tap. The only sign of cheapness in the construction is a plastic grill inside the spout to stop limescale getting into your tea cups, this was originally flexible but has now become brittle and may break soon. The lead from kettle to plug is quite short - around 2 feet - good if you don't want trailing wires, bad if you want your kettle some way from the socket.
Overall though it's just about everything I want from a kettle at a remarkable good price. Excellent value.
I think of the Classic as the workhorse of the iPod range, it's not as sexy as the Touch (I have one of those as well) but with a hard disk inside it's capacity is massive enough for almost anyone's entire music collection. The claim is 20,000 songs in 128-Kbps AAC format, I tend to use the less compact MP3 format for compatibility with other players, but even 10,000 songs is impressive. I'd guess only people with large video collections would need a larger disk than 80GB.
These days I tend to carry the Touch around with me and the Classic sits in an Altec Lansing speaker dock in the living room - replacing a hifi system that was about 50 times the size. Music quality obviously isn't full-blown stereo but that's down to the small Altec speakers, not the iPod. It's a common complaint that Apple's bundled earphones aren't up to much, but personally when I've used them I've always found them satisfactory (possibly a side by side comparison with an expensive pair would reveal more).
Surprisingly for something with such a small screen, watching video is remarkably good. I also have a cable to connect the iPod to my old, non-flat, television and while the video sharpness obviously does degrade on a larger screen (the iPod video format has fewer lines than a tv broadcast) it's still watchable. (Buying one of these connecting cables from Apple is expensive but look on Amazon for much cheaper copies.)
Photos aren't so successful as video however, I find the very small screen means faces are hard to recognise - all the same I copy my digital albums onto the iPod as backup for my computers hard disk.
The famous click wheel control on the Classic now looks dated compared to the Touch's touch screen, but it still does an effective job navigating a menu system that's better designed than most of Apple's competitors. You have to accept of course that scrolling through 20,000 songs is going to take some time, and once the software decides to go high speed it's almost inevitable you'll overshoot, but everything's intuitive and there's no learning curve needed to master the options and start playing music.
Oh, and it does have games. I wouldn't bother, the screen's too small and the controls weren't designed for game-play. Get a Touch if you want an iPod as a games machine. But for a full-blown music player capable of holding your entire collection the Classic's still your man.
One last critical point to mention, there is an essential accesory every iPod needs, and that's a computer running either Windows or Apple OS. The iTunes music manager software, especially on Windows, is frequently criticized for being slow and clunky, so you'd better make that a fairly powerful computer. If you run linux then forget it I'm afraid, the iPod's not for you.
The Brother Fax T106 is a combined fax machine / telephone answering machine / copier.
Prices vary but certainly you should be able to find it at well under £100 including VAT - which is reasonable for office equipment (plus remember to claim tax deductible).
Fax of course is used much less than it used to be, although for business purposes it can still be essential to have the ability to receive them. It's also occasionally useful for sending copies of paper forms back to a supplier when I want to hang on to the original.
As Fax use becomes less frequent however the more important it is for the equipment to be straightforward and user friendly with no great learning curve. The Brother should present no problems after a quick read of the instruction book.
The T106 does the job adequately. It uses plain A4 printer paper, but uses thermal-transfer printing requiring supplies from specialist shops - so I can't pick up spares in the local Tesco superstore as I can for the inkjet printer.
The machine is light and occupies a small footprint on the desktop. The paper tray is unobtrusive. Paper capacity is fairly limited [but no one has the time to send many pages of fax].
So as a fax machine - probably the principle reason for buying something like this - it's very adequate, transmission and reception speeds are on a par with similar machines from other brands.
The copying function can usefully enlarge or reduce the original to some extent, but with the thermal printing technology you're not going to get photo-quality or colour - if your office has a regular need to copy modern laser-produced documents then a dedicated colour device is probably a better answer.
As a telephone it will record up to 15 minutes and has a useful loudspeaker function. In fact in my office the telephone answering function gets used a lot more than the fax. Sound quality is acceptable. However one weak point of the design is the insecure seating of the flimsy telephone handset - it falls off its cradle all too easily.
Overall the T106 a reasonable compromise between it's various functions at a budget price. If you do a lot of regular faxing and copying, have plenty of desk space, and can afford to spend more then you'll probably appreciate the extra convenience and quality of more expensive, dedicated single-function equipment.
The Wii has a very different image from its game console competitors like the Xbox and Playstation. While the latter seem like 'boy's toys' the Nintendo is much more family-friendly.
You can buy independently made classic 'shoot 'em up' games like Meteroid which in terms of graphics hold their own with the usual Xbox fare - although dedicated game players have said the Wii's motion detector controllers don't give the accuracy of game paddles for this genre.
Mostly though the Wii seems to be purchased for games like Wii Sports Resort and Wii Fit where middle aged members of the family are happy to embarrass themselves alongside the youngsters. That's certainly why we bought ours and it's been a good investment.
Oddly, despite the obvious graphic capabilities of the Wii, this type of Nintendo-written game (sport?) seems to always use rather primitive graphics with basic cartoon-like 'Mii' characters. These may appeal more to the Japanese sense of aesthetics than they do to mine. If you can overlook the simpliefied cuteness however the gameplay is usually addictive fun.
PS, and you can watch the BBC iPlayer on it.
First, to avoid confusion, I should point out that Freecom claim to make the worlds smallest 160GB external drive at just under 11cm long. This isn't it. The main illustration here (a silver case rather than black) is the much bigger, older product based on 3.5" hardware inside and designed for home or office use rather than laptop portability. The link from here to Amazon UK however will take you to the portable one which is a very different product.
Having hopefully cleared that up, the desktop variation is still a very good device even if it isn't state of the art. I'm very happy with the one I bought some time ago. And it may even mean you can pick the older model up at a very good price.
It has to be said though, for a full size enclosure, 160 GB isn't all that large a capacity these days - however it's more than enough to hold all my music library, digital photos, backups and a few videos. So if it's enough for you as well then there may be no reason to look elsewhere. It certainly pays to shop around as prices vary widely, but you might find you can buy a larger capacity at very little extra cost.
One plus point of the silver cased model is that it's actually made of aluminium, so it's very tough and resistant to damage. I suspect you could drop a filing cabinet on it and it would survive. Not something you could guarantee with a dinky plastic case.