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Sometimes I just accidentally spend money. I don't mean to, it just happens. Such was the case when I moved in with my (then) girlfriend and needed to get the computer set up. I really wanted to have a proper, desktop computer on which to work, but knew I'd meet resistance with the amount of cables and clutter that would be necessary. So, I blinked...and before I knew it, I'd bought a shiney new monitor, wireless keyboard and mouse and a pair of Creative Inspire T10s. The effect is spot on, it looks almost wireless, it all matches neatly in gloss black and even the girlfriend found it smart and appealing. So, on account of me spending the money completely by accident, it's fair to say I didn't necessarily do my normal level of research around the T10s before I bought them, in fact, I think I saw them, picked them up and paid for them - in about 2 minutes flat. But, that wasn't a pure punt - I've had several pairs of creative speakers in the past, so knew I wouldn't be going too far wrong - and I didn't. I find the T10s very attractive to look at, they're gloss black at the front, with the rest of the units being more matt. They're relatively small, only measuring around 4" x 6" x 6". On top of the speakers, they have a hole, for air to flow in and out of the casing, on the front they have a large bass/mid speaker and a smaller tweeter above. There's a black metalic mesh covering the bass/mid, which looks smart enough. The left speaker is quite plain, whereas the front of the right speaker also sports power/volume and tone controls. On the right of the right speaker are two 3.5mm jack sockets - one for headphone out and one for aux in (a nice feature if you just want to listen to something off your MP3 player without powering on the PC) - to the rear of the right, there's a daisychain socket for the left speaker, an input socket and a power socket. The speakers have a reassuring weight to them and seem to have no issues with build quality at all, they seem thoroughly well put together. I guess speakers live or die by there sound and I have to say, the T10s do a pretty good job. The sound isn't hi-fi sound, if you want to listen to music for music's sake, I think you're going to have to spend a little more money, but the sound is certainly good enough for most things. Watching videos on the web, or quietly in front of the PC, great. Playing games, great. Putting some music on while you're working - great. These are relatively small speakers - they're not going to shake the house - and if you try to turn them up that loud, you'll find the bass doesn't keep up with the treble and midrange, leading to quite a tinny sound, but they'll put out decent volume for most day-to-day use. I guess the price point is quite significant, here - the T10s can be picked up, usually, for around the £30 mark - which really makes them quite a bargain. Smart looking, well built, decent sounding speakers for £30 is a no brainer. If you're after speakers for using on the web, or for light gaminig, you need look no further.
My work requires me to take part in very long calls - often with little to say, so it's useful to be able to type at the same time as being on a call. For that reason, I was issued with the Jabra GN 2100 headset to plug into the phone. The headset comes neatly packed in a smart black box, along with a couple of booklets, a case for the headset and a spare set of headphone covers. To look at, the headset is OK, if not remarkable. A black metal band joins two large plastic arms on which sit the leather clad speaker units. These rotate a little awkwardly about the vertical axis, but have no rotation at all about the horizontal. The length of the band can be adjusted with a nice clicking movement to position the headset as is comfortable. The microphone is attached by a plastic arm to the same speaker unit onto which the (relatively thin) cable joins. The mic itself is covered in a nice black foam that looks very smart and professional - and is larger than some. There is a black, rectangular, volume control attached to the cable. On plugging in, the headset is impressive. The headphones give a really nice, clear sound and other people report that my speech is very clear from the microphone, without picking up too much background noise - although my typing is well audible if I do not mute. I've worn the headset for prolonged periods of time and haven't experienced any discomfort at all - sometimes I almost forget it's there. Where, then, is the chink in the Jabra's armour? One word. Price. The retail price for this headset is somewhere in the region of £120. This just seems crazy. As it's a nice headset, you may expect to pay more that the standard £5 job from tesco - £40, maybe even £50 - but £120 is just madness. I cannot see how they can justify this kind of money. The optional accessories (I have a USB converter cable) are also crazily expensive (it was £40). For that reason, alone, I'm knocking 2 stars off this product.
Last year our company decided to make a strategic switch from Dell to HP for all our computing goodies - one result of which is my second monitor - the HP LE2201w. Sat beside my original, Dell, monitor, it's easy to see how attractive the HP monitor is - where the dell is hard and angular, the HP has nice curved corners, a gentle taper on the surround to the panel and a nice rounded square base. This gives the monitor a modern, softer look, whilst still looking very smart and professional - not at all "blobby". The surround is matt black plastic, around an inch all the way round, except for the bottom, where it's a little more to accommodate the buttons - power, menu and up/down selectors. To the rear left there's the model number and the HP logo sits proudly at top centre. To the rear of the screen, there's nothing too fancy - just a power cable and VGA input. The screen itself has the modern "matt look" effect over it, which wipes clean pretty well with appropriate products, and seems to have a fairly good viewing angle - although it can look a little pinky from the very side. The picture quality is certainly sharp, the 1680x1050 native resolution gives you plenty of screen real estate. I've not got a single dead pixel in my panel, which is always a plus. The auto-calibration also seems to work very well - saving a bunch of time fiddling around trying to get the image lined up correctly. Colour reproduction, however, is a little disappointing. Bright greens and oranges just seem to lack a little "pop" when compared to the best screens I've used - the picture seems more akin to that of a laptop than a main monitor. Thankfully, for my work purposes, this is never an issue - the LE2201w works perfectly well for word processing, spreadsheets and coding - where the sharpness makes text really easy to read in a variety of colours. I guess the LE2201w will have to take a four star review - for the most part it's a capable monitor and does whatever you could expect from it - but the poor colour reproduction and a lack of a few features (DVI, USB etc) rob it of the full 5* review.
A few years back I was heavily into mountain biking - and I do a fair amount of long distance running. It was getting to the stage where I was feeling a little insecure being so far from home with no means of calling for assistance if I got injured - so I decided I needed to start taking a phone out with me. Being into modern phones, my handset at the time was quite expensive and shiney - and I didn't fancy stuffing this in my camelbak, along with my tools, spare inner tubes and so on, so I decided that getting a cheap and cheerful pay-as-you-go phone was the way forward. The Nokia 1200 fit the bill really nicely - it was a Nokia, a brand I trust, it was a phone - and it cost £20 including £10 of credit on the high street. Cheap as chips - and really quite cheerful. It was definitely a change to go back to a black and white screen, big clicky buttons and so on, having been used to rather more advanced phones, but not necessarily a bad thing - this Nokia, like so many before it...just works. I've saved a couple of numbers in the memory, I've sent a couple of texts, I've made a couple of calls (fair quality). All straightforward, all intuitive, al great. It's got a torch, which isn't too useful to me, but could be useful to others - and it's even got Snake, so if I get bored waiting for my friends, I can sit off my bike and have a quick game. Over the last couple of years, I've put the 1200 through some abuse - I've thrown it about the place, squeezed it into pockets with screwdrivers and dirt - and it just keeps going. The charge lasts for a couple of days *easy* - so much so that I've hardly ever had to charge the thing (as I leave it off in my bag, anyway) If you're after a cheap handset to use and abuse, the 1200 is a great choice - it's basic, sure, but basically brilliant.
One of my bugbears in life is people who impact on the lives of strangers. This might be littering, smoking or, more to the point, being noisy. At university I was unfortunate enough to live next to a couple of sets of really noisy, inconsiderate neighbours - and it drove me bonkers. It's for this reason, when I decided to buy a flat, one of the first things I shopped for was a good pair of headphones. Being a slight (but only slight) hifi nerd, I thought I'd treat myself to something a little more expensive than I usually spend (I think the most I'd spend previously on headphones was around £40) - reading reviews, it became apparent that the Grado's are the pair of choice for < £100, so I decided to give them a go. The first thing I noticed when I got the headphones delivered was just how dated the packaging looked - it wasn't so much "hi-tech hifi" - more like "antique action man" - dull cardboard case in washed out colours - but never being one to judge a book by its cover, I cracked them open. Once inside the box, my perception shifted rapidly. The phones themselves are obviously well constructed and really good looking for my taste. Using a fair slab of retro, they look like they wouldn't be out of place on a machine gunner flying over Vietnam - and to me, that is awesome. The actually speaker units were somewhat larger than I was expecting - being around 70mm diameter - these are definitely full sized cans, not pocket headphones. The cable, too, is definitely full sized - around 5mm thick, 2m long and joined between the two speaker units in the middle, like a stethescope. It would be pretty hard to just wrap excess cable around your iPod and stick it in your pocket. The speaker units are very well articulated, spinning around freely vertically and rocking back and forth equally smoothly horizontally. They can also be pushed up and down for adjustment, requiring just the right amount of force - easy enough to keep control, hard enough that they don't slip. I find that this adjust-ability ensures a really snug fit, comfortable enough for prolonged listening. Between the speaker units, the band is constructed of thick leather (35mm?) covering a metal band. Very comfy. Where the SR60's really come into their own, of course, is in the sound. Pushed through an amplifier, I'm able to hear instruments in the mid-range that I never even knew were playing on the track before. The music sounds almost "de-constructed", with each individual sound clear and distinct - almost as if the band is in the room with you. Really amazing to listen to - and you really feel you're getting the best out of the equipment you have them plugged into. The bass is also palpable. Whilst maybe not "vibrating" your ear drums in the way isolation headphones, might - the bass is strong and direct. Sadly, I don't find the sound *quite* as impressive when plugged into a non-amplified source, like an iPod (which you can do, thanks to the 3.5mm jack provided) - the midrange sounds a little more stifled - and the bass seems a little underpowered - like the speakers just aren't being given quite enough juice. The SR60s are still, however, a great listen and still surpass cheaper headphones for sheer sound quality - and comfort. I've also used these headphones for playing the Xbox 360 through a stereo amp and they really do make the soundtrack of games spring to life - each gunshot seems more realistic, each voice comes over clearer and music really punches and drives the game along (I was particularly impressed with Devil May Cry 4, which I bought around the same time as these headphones..). The limitations of the SR60, when there are any, are purely down to the kind of device they are, rather than anything specific about Grado's design or build - they are bulky, so hard to carry about. They require amplification to get the most out of them. They're open-backed, so you can't listen to loud music on a bus without the whole bus hearing it as well (another bugbear of mine!) - I guess some may find the styling a little too old-sckool for their taste, too - but I simply refuse to mark them down for this. Overall, then, I can't find fault with these headphones - sure, they're a little costly, but if I think about the amount I spend on CDs, MP3s, DVDs, Games - these headphones let me enjoy the sound more on all of them - and for only a couple of pence per disc - a bargain, I think.
A few years back I was putting together a small hifi system for my fiancée to use in her bedroom at the time. Not wanting to spend too much money, I looked at numerous reviews for budget amplifiers and, in the end, plumped for the Cambridge Audio A5. I teamed this with a pair of Cambridge Audio S30 bookshelf speakers and some good quality QED interconnects to her MP3 player and DVD. Strangely, I think I'll start with the limitations of the A5 - firstly, there's no remote. I guess it's down to individuals as to whether this is a negative or not, personally, I'd rather it had one. Secondly, there's no headphone socket. Yes, you can work around this in a variety of ways, but I'd rather there was one provided. The downsides out of the way, on to the positives: The A5 is attractive and really well built - it feels reassuringly weighty and solid in the hand and the finish of the silver paint is really smooth. The design is simple, but classically so - there's a large volume control in the centre, a mode selector and balance control to the right, bass/treble to the left and a couple of small buttons for "source direct" and monitor in between. To the rear, there are ample connections for a basic home audio system - 5 inputs, a couple of tape loops and some nice quality speaker connectors. Most importantly, the sound that the A5 outputs is really impressive. The detail and balance rival that of much more expensive kit I've tried out. I'm quite fussy about sound quality, but love to listen through the A5. The volume doesn't "go as loud" as some people may wish - this isn't a PA system - but for casual listening in smaller rooms it's quite adequate. So good is the A5 that it beat off competition from my own amp (costing 3x as much) when my fiancée and I moved in together and had to assemble a system for our lounge. Despite the lack of remote or headphone socket (both of which would have been useful), we decided that the sound quality, along with the attractive appearance of the A5, made it the worthy victor. In summary, I can't recommend the A5 highly enough as a first amp, or the basis of a basic hi-fi system. It sounds great, looks great and seems built to last (ours is going strong some 5 years later). The trade-off for the low price is the loss of a couple of features - but if you can live without these, you'll not do any better for the same money.
My fiancée's old Sony laptop having given up the ghost, we set about finding a replacement for her. After some discussion, and trying out a few things instore, we came to the conclusion that she could probably achieve everything she wanted to day to day on a smaller, and trendier, netbook - something that would fit in her handbag to carry back and forth - and would have the battery life to last through a day. We were then left to chose between the myriad of netbooks available and, of course, the apple iPad. The iPad, whilst fantastic for certain things (notably the maps!), we felt just wasn't as good for text entry - and as word processing was one of our key requirements (as was easy compatibility) we decided to pass and compare the various netbooks available instead. After much research, several demos and a fair bit of toing and froing, we ended up getting the Samsung N150. It was the most attractive netbook we'd seen and the spec, for the money, seemed extremely good. We paid around £260 at the time, although it's now available for a little less. Out of the box, the machine is immediately impressive - a tasteful blend of matt and gloss black, with a nice matt red stripe around the outside. It feels sturdy to the touch, although a little plastic-y, if you're being critical. Picking it up, it has definite weight to it - not enough to really bother you, but it's definitely not super-light. As well as the machine, you also get a power supply, which is also compact, making it easy for travelling with. Turning the machine on, I was immediately impressed by the screen. While not huge (being 10 inches) it's bright and has remarkably good colour reproduction. It also has a very good viewing angle. Windows 7 seems to work really smoothly on the machine and performance is very good. A definite downside, however, is the amount of pre-installed software (or "bloatware") the machine is shipped with - it took around 2 hours to un-install it all. Once off, the performance of the machine is even better - and startup times much improved. The machine has all of the connectivity options you would expect - ethernet, wifi and USB are all present and correct - and the keyboard has a really nice action to it - not too "clicky". The trackpad, also, works really well, never glitchy or jerky, it just does the job. The real strength of the N150, however, is how it works over time - it just works really well - it starts up in next to no time, does everything we've asked of it - office applications, internet, videos, some light gaming - and the battery holds charge remarkably well - doing simple office tasks, you can easily do a day's work without needing to charge. My fiancée loves the machine and couldn't find fault with it, for me, however, there are still a couple of "could do bettter"s...you don't get quite enough "screen real estate" at standard resolution - a lot of the screen is covered by the ribbons in Office applications - not leaving much space for your actual documents. Also, I find the key layout a little fiddly, finding "home" and "end" particularly. I think, however, these are issues that will be an issue on any netbook, nothing against the N150 itself. Overall, though, it's a fantastic little netbook that just works, really well.
It was -6'c when I fell asleep on the bus on the way back from the Christmas party. I awoke to find myself some half hour drive past my stop. Being on the last bus, and just a little worse for wear, I decided the best and only thing to do was to stagger off the bus at the next stop, in the middle of nowhere. My old Samsung phone, having average battery life at best was long since flat - but thankfully, my trusty Blackberry Bold 9700 was, as always, still going strong. Not only was I able to call my fiancée to come and bail me out, but with a little help from Google Maps, I was able to tell her exactly where I was and the quickest way to come to collect me. While waiting, I was even able to pass the time and fight off the urge to fall asleep in the cold with a couple of games of Klondike. Brilliant. I have the Blackberry Bold 9700 as a work phone - and have to say, as such, it's a fantastic bit of kit. It's quick and easy to type emails on, has very good voice quality, has a camera good enough, at least, for photographing whiteboards after meetings and works well to keep my calendar up to date (and consequently, helps me be in the right place at the right time). The unit is well built, the keyboard has a nice "click" to it and it seems fairly resistant to the occasional drop and bump. It also has, as above, an impressive battery life that will last for several days without trying - something other smart phones simply aren't able to achieve. Where the Blackberry isn't so good, however, is in the interface - being used to using touch screens, the small trackpad-style interface provided on the 9700 seems fiddly and inconvenient by comparison - image and web browsing is also some way behind the iPhones of this world both in terms of speed and ease of use - and the amount of "fun" apps is rather limited. If you're after a reliable phone to keep up with emails, make calls and pass a little time occasionally, the Bold 9700 is just the ticket. If, however, you're after a fun device for games, social networking and web browsing, there are better phones around.
When my finance and I moved into our first flat together almost two years ago, we had a dilemma - What should we do for TV? I had become used to the Humax 9200, which was the "Rolls Royce" of freeview recorders at the time, but there was a strong temptation to go for Sky, get the HD content, a few more channels and so on. If it weren't for the high cost of Sky, that's probably what we would have done. When we stumbled across the FoxSat HDR one day, it was clear that there was a "best of both" solution. The FoxSat offers you a wider range of channels, HD broadcasts and Sky+ style recording, but without a monthly subscription. Ideal. On first impressions, the unit is very impressive - it seems well put together and has a lovely blue-tinted gloss front that looks really quite smart (imagine it would look brilliant next to a bluray player in a similar style). It has a good variety of connectivity options, HDMI, digital audio out etc and the unit is a little slimmer than the 9200 I was used to. On powering the thing up, setup is equally impressive - it asks your postcode and loads up the correct regional variations for you then off you go. It really couldn't get much simpler. The pictures on the FoxSat are great - the low-def channels look pretty good, but naturally the HD pictures are those that really impress. At the time of writing the FoxSat gives you access to BBC HD, BBC ONE HD and ITV HD only, but there's a good variety of HD content, especially for sport - with football, rugby and (as of this season) Formula One all available in HD on one channel or another. The sound is good, if not exceptional - put through a decent amp and speakers it falls short of DVD standard audio, but is certainly better than most set-top boxes. Using the FoxSat as a recorder is when the genius really starts - it's just so easy. Press the "guide" button and you will see a list of everything that's showing on each channel for the next week...Simply scroll through until you see something you want to record and press OK. It will ask you whether you want to record the single show, or all of the episodes in the series, then it will ask you (if applicable) whether you want to record the HD or standard definition versions of the show - and that's it done. No faffing around with timers, no reading off long Video+ codes, just a couple of presses and you're done. In fact, it's simple enough that my mum, who would never have even attempted to program the VHS to record shows is quite happy to set things on series link on her FoxSat without a second thought. Once recorded, shows end up in a well organised screen (grouped by show) from which you simply select the program you wish to view. You can choose to begin watching from the start, where you left off (if you've played then stopped the show before) or, overnight, images are downloaded for "chapters" that you can select - you can also add these easily yourself using the bookmark functions. Once you're done watching, it's a couple of button presses to delete the show and you're off. This stops the unit from becoming full - but with 320GB on board, you're afforded plenty of space even when recording HD content. We've several whole series of our favourite shows saved, plus around 40 things we're "working on" watching and we're still hovering around the 60% mark. The FoxSat has the ability to record two programs at once if your Satellite Dish is fitted with a dual LNB or better - ie it has two or more cables coming from it. You can also watch a third, recorded, show whilst the other two are recording. As well as conventional recording, the recorder can be used to "timeshift" or "pause" live TV, which is really useful if someone calls at a good bit in a film, or if you want to step out to put the kettle on. In playback, there are handy advert skip buttons which jump you forward or back a set amount of time in the recording - this is much quicker for skipping through adverts than using the conventional fast forward and rewind buttons that are also provided. The advantages of having a FoxSat in your life, for me, well justify the cost of the thing (around £280 when I bought it, now available for £230ish). You'll never need to watch adverts again, you'll never have to miss your favourite shows again, you'll never miss the only goal while you're out getting another beer - and you'll get to enjoy great high-def pictures for free. There are certainly a couple of "quirks" of the FoxSat, small things, like sometimes when you bring up the guide the show you're watching will keep playing in the background, other times it will go and they'll just be a gray background. There are workarounds, though, for this and the rest of FoxSat's quirks - and in time you just start to view it as "that's just the way it works" - so I don't feel these excentricities justify robbing the FoxSat HDR of it's most deserved 5 star rating.
I've recently got an iPhone on The One Plan from Three, so I thought I'd give them a quick write up. The first thing to comment on is the price - the reason I plumped for Three in the first place...Three was by far and away the cheapest place to get the iPhone from - I paid £70 for the phone on a £35/month contract - plus got £106 cashback through quidco. The One Plan includes 2000 minutes (plus more to other Three mobiles) , 5000 texts and "all you can eat" internet. In black and white, this is just cheaper than anything else I could find. Sadly, however, there is a reason they're so cheap - their customer service really is bare bones. My first handset I ordered (HTC Desire HD) was delivered with horrible Three branding all through it, ruining the experience of the phone - and worse, it was locked to the Three network so I couldn't get my numbers off my old SIM card. The phone was advertised as an unlocked handset on their website, but even so it took three or four calls to persuade them that they should provide me with the unlock code - and even now I'm convinced that they're going to charge me for it - despite a manager agreeing they would make an "exception" and not charge me. Speaking to their customer services team really does fit into all the most negative stereotypes about Indian call centres - there are endless menus to go through before you speak to someone, the people you speak to read from scripts and have broken English - and even the smallest problem is too complicated for someone other than a "supervisor" to deal with. Having finally got my numbers loaded onto the old phone and (for reasons detailed in another review) deciding I would rather get the iPhone, I called up and asked to exchange the handset. I have to admit, I was steeling myself for a battle - I'd noticed that (although not mentioned at the time of order), their "14 days guarantee" only applies if the handset is unused - and I'd been using mine to see if I liked it! I didn't need to worry though, the person I spoke to was incredibly helpful (so rare, I wonder if the cleaner answered the phone by mistake) - he arranged a date for the courier to come and do the swap - and that was that. Easy. My next interaction with them was trying to get my old number transferred over. Despite having a big article on their website about how Three are pushing to get this process done in under 2 hours, they still told me that this wouldn't be done for three days - and then the agreed switchover day came and went. The following morning I called and was advised that (despite me not receiving any notification of the fact) the switch had been completed - that a simple off-and-on would sort it out. Of course, having done this, the problem remained. I then called back again. The woman said that she would need to call the number to make sure it hadn't been transferred - and apparently she had no other phone, so would need to call me back afterward - she never did. I gave up and went to work - but some 8 hours later the problem seemed to fix itself so (thankfully) there was no need to contact them any further. My gripes about their service out of the way, a note on the network itself - it's fine. I've had no issues getting signal anywhere I've been, download speeds when out and about are quite ample and voice calls are stable and good quality. No complaints in that regard. Overall, I think that Three offer a half-decent service, so I'll give them three stars. All being well, you shouldn't need to contact their horrific call centres too regularly, so it's hard to give them a one star review just on that basis - for the most part they do what you pay them for OK - and you don't pay them very much for doing it.
I've just finished writing my review of the HTC Desire HD - which I returned in order to get my hands, instead, on the iPhone 4. It only seems fair, then, that I should provide a review on the iPhone as well. *** Out of the box *** I don't know why, but I was a little surprised by just how small the box the phone came in was - it was little bigger than the phone itself - and just deep enough to fit a standard 3-pin plug in beneath the phone. In the box comes the phone, a handsfree headset, the standard USB-iPhone cable and the three pin adapter for charging from the mains. There are a couple of little instruction books, but nothing with any level of detail. On first sight, the iPhone 4 is undeniably attractive - the gloss black veneer front and back make a great sandwich out of the brushed metallic sides. To the bottom of the phone is the standard iPod/iPhone socket, the left hand side has volume up/down and mute buttons. The top sports a 3.5mm jack socket for headphones and the "lock" button. The right hand side is blank aside from the micro SIM slot. That's a little niggle - the micro SIM. I just don't see the point. It's inserted into the phone in a tray which is, frankly, not much smaller than a standard SIM - so why bother? The fact that you then have to "activate" this thing with your network also just slows you down from being able to enjoy your new toy! The phone is surprisingly heavy, but far from being a bad thing, this gives the handset a real "premium" feel and the buttons all click with tangible quality. The first, and most severe downside of the iPhone 4 is apparent at this early stage - you *need* iTunes to make the phone work. Before you've connected the phone to iTunes it is a brick. If you don't have a computer - just don't bother with the iPhone. That, to me, is madness. *** Impressions *** Once you've got your fiddly little micro SIM activated, worked out a way to transfer your contacts from your old SIM to the new phone and hooked the thing up to iTunes, you're set to go - it takes longer than you'd like, but you only do it once (and it gives you a chance to give your phone a good full charge, anyway). Right from the start, you know what you've signed up for - it just works. Configuring your email and calendar settings is a doddle, connecting to wifi is easy, getting set up with apps for Facebook, twitter etc takes a matter of minutes. Then, almost sadly, you're done. I've had the phone for more than a week now and have had to make no tweaks, not touched the settings at all. Which just lets you enjoy the features: *** Apps *** The Apple App Store is great. There are thousands of downloads all organised logically and easily - you can locate the best free apps, the best paid for, they're broken down into categories, you can search, there are features - great. All of the apps are a doddle to install - just a couple of button presses (and the occasional entering of your password) and you're done. The apps are also remarkably impressive - games really are coming on strongly on this platform - some of the graphics are akin to to those on "proper" handheld game consoles, if not better - and some of the games are addictive beyond words. (a high score contest on Ninjump at work is keeping me occupied at present) Within a couple of hours of powering on the device I had facebook, twitter, internet banking, sat nav and a bunch of games all set up and working - really couldn't be simpler. *** Camera *** One of the major leaps forward from the 3GS to the iPhone 4 is the camera - upgrading from 3MP to 5MP, adding a flash and a bunch of other features. Tap the something on the screen and the camera will focus on it. Clever. 5MP still isn't a leading specification - in fact I have to go back 4 years to find a phone I've owned with fewer, but it's not all about the number of pixels - the iPhone 4 takes really nice photos - whilst you may not be able to print them on massive canvasses, they're plenty good enough for pinging around the web or sending to your friends. There is also the addition of a front-facing camera which makes taking self-portraits very easy. There's a "flip" button in the top right of the screen...you just tap that and it switches camera. As well as being great for self-portraits, the front-facing camera is also great for... *** FaceTime *** I've had a few phones that could "do" videophone. I've never tried it before - but with FaceTime, it's just so easy. When connected to someone with another iPhone (and with a wifi signal), you simply press the "FaceTime" button and it sorts you out...it hangs up your call and connects you, instead, to the other person via wifi. It shows you their face on screen, with your face picture-in-picture. The picture quality is much better than I was anticipating, really very detailed - and sound quality is fine, too. If you're somewhere special, or want to show the other person something, you can simply tap the "flip" button and have them look out of the other camera on your phone - a very slick feature. FaceTime can be minimised into the back ground if you need to look something up on your phone while you're on the call. Really well implemented. FaceTime is apparently an open standard for other people to develop - so hopefully the number of phones able to use this feature will grow rapidly...and, of course, because it uses wifi, the calls are free - bonus. *** Interface *** As good as it gets. Everything on the phone, from menus to emails to web browsing, to image browsing to music to apps to maps - it just works so effortlessly. A swipe of the finger here, a tap there...magic. Being supercritical, being a "techie", I sort of expect to see a "settings" button on every screen - and there rarely is one...but I think that's just something you get used to - in order to maintain the fantastic interface, you miss out on a little configurability. Other things are nicely implemented too - the way GPS, wifi and the like come and go as needed - very good. *** Battery *** As this was my bugbear with the Desire HD, I thought I'd better comment on the iPhone - the battery is fine. I've been using it on and off all day today, it's just gone midnight and I have around 75% battery remaining - with light use it will last a couple of days, easy - with heavy use it will still make it through a day. *** Screen *** The screen isn't the biggest on the market - but the resolution makes up for that to a large degree...The screen is super-sharp and all images look great on it. It is easily visible in all light conditions and is big enough for web browsing and reading emails etc. No complaints at all. *** Conclusions *** So close to perfection, but I have to knock a star off..there are just a few things that all seem do-able that would make this phone perfect:A normal SIM, expandable memory, Flash, Swype (apparently in development), micro-USB interface and, most pressingly, NO ITUNES. You simply should not need to install this junk just to have your phone work. These are all, however, tiny little holes to pick in an overwhelmingly superb package. The iPhone 4 is far and away the best phone I've ever owned - and I would recommend it above all others without hesitation. As always, with Apple, the iPhone comes at a price - mine was £70 on a two year, £35/month contract - but I really feel in this instance the high cost is justified.
*** Context *** I've mentioned on here at least once before that I'm not exactly an Apple fanboy - in fact, over the years, I've been quite outspoken in my criticism of all things white and shiney. It was for this reason, when I got my last phone eighteen months ago, I had a decision to make. The iPhone 3GS was out and getting rave reviews...But I just couldn't believe that there wasn't anything better out there. In the end, whilst my fiancée picked the 3GS, I settled on the Samsung Omnia i8910 HD - the first phone to shoot HD video. On paper, it killed the iPhone. It was faster, had more (and expandable) memory, the Camera was 8 megapixel with flash, dwarfing the 3MP iPhone effort. The screen was larger and newer, it used standardised (micro-USB) cabling. It had sat nav out of the box...the list goes on. Fast forward 18 months and here we are...my fiancée still enjoying her 3GS and saying it's the "best phone I've ever had" - and me getting so frustrated with the Samsung that I was willing to buy out the remaining 6 months on the contract, just to be shot of the thing - which I did. (I should note, this is largely due to the crippling firmware stuck on the device and a lack of support from Orange - but that's a different story...) So, I found myself in a familiar position...the iPhone 4 was out - and getting rave reviews...but I still thought something must be better...Two things, in particular, were missing from the iPhone package, for me. 1) Swype - by far the quickest way to send text messages. 2) Flash. So, I shopped around and came across the Desire HD as a potential iPhone slayer for this generation. Did I dare, though, to turn my back on the iPhone and risk making the same mistake over again - yes, I did - I got the Desire HD. *** First impressions *** I'll start by saying, out of the box, the Desire HD is great. The screen is massive and takes up most of the front of the phone - it's a looker. On first turning it on I was disappointed with the start up time - I'd seen videos of the "quick start" online...and whilst my HD did, eventually, start in just a couple of seconds - it was preceded by 20 seconds of "three" branding that had been added. Once this was over with, though, I was immediately impressed with the size, colour and sharpness of the screen. Great. The phone is also amazingly easy to set up - it takes you through a Wizard, asks you for your credentials for email, social networking etc and hooks everything up for you. I had an issue with the phone being locked, which meant transferring my old contacts to the phone was a hassle - but this was very much a problem specific to Three. Once set up, the phone's really impressive. Little things grab your attention first - the nice animated wallpapers - the live weather widget (complete with windscreen wiper animations when it's raining), there's a live feed of all of your facebook updates and tweets combined. The "linking" of accounts is also excellent - with peoples phone, gmail, facebook and twitter accounts all being merged for easier connectivity. Great. The interface is good - for the most part, it's responsive and slick - there is the occasional glitch, but nothing too major. There are lots of widgets available, plenty of space to arrange them all and the android market place is well stocked and easy to use. *** Doom *** Where did it all go wrong, then? The second day. I charged the thing fully initially, as recommended, then used it for the evening and charged it overnight. I took it off charge at 9AM the next morning and left for work. By 5:30, the thing was out of battery. Fine, I'd sent a few texts, a couple of emails - and I think I even played 10 minutes of games at lunch...but this really wasn't a high use day...And before anyone says it, yes, bluetooth, GPS and wifi were all disabled. Whilst I don't mind having to charge my phone every night, I didn't like having to drive home knowing I couldn't call for help if I needed to...So I began the process of trying to extend the battery life or, to give it a better name, "turning off the good stuff". The fancy animated wallpapers were the first to go, swiftly followed by the live weather feed and the live friends feed. Then there's configuration settings - dull the screen, so it doesn't quite "pop" the same way anymore...decrease the time the backlight stays on, disable vibrate, etc etc. Then, the breakthrough comes in the "app killer" as mentioned here in other reviews...Once you're done with an application, tap the "kill" button and it actually stops the thing for you. All of these strategies helped *significantly* in extending the battery life - probably up to around 2 days of moderate use...but at what a cost. The widgets were all set to "manual refresh" - which completely defeats the point - if I wanted to click a button to see my facebook updates, I could just use an app...Likewise with the weather and emails. All of this disabled, you end up with a phone that really doesn't offer you anything the iPhone doesn't - well, one thing, my beloved Swype. I became aware, also, that there were areas in which the phone was just not remotely as good as the iPhone - the interface, whilst *good* just isn't to the same level...the flicks and swishes of your finger on the iPhone flick the content around so effortlessly - scrolling on the Desire HD was slow and jerky by comparison. Things like the image library - where the iPhone loads instantly and flicks back and fourth between images effortlessly, there's a fair bit of waiting on the HD - and you quite often have to swipe your finger twice to get it to do what you want. The web browser(s) were good, but simply not as easy to use as Safari. Finally, the two phones next to each other, whilst the HTC is great to look at, for my money the iPhone looks better, has a more "premium" feel - and is a little more comfortable in the hand. As well as the battery life, there were other irritations with the phone, too. The "linking" of contacts - whilst initially impressive, caused real issues. When receiving text messages from certain contacts, for instance, it would *always* attempt to reply to their number listed on facebook - no matter how much I set other numbers as the default. A number of these facebook numbers had +44 at the start - and as such, the phone was unable to send the messages - forcing me to have to manually re-forward every reply I tried to send. The implementation of favourites on the phone was also woefully clunky - I spent around 2 hours trying to work out how to remove someone from the group - and in the end I just gave up. It's possible both of these quirks have solutions, but if a geeky IT professional with all of Google behind him can't find the answer, the interface just isn't as easy to use as it should be. *** Conclusions *** This phone is seriously let down by the battery. I'd read reviews before I bought the thing saying just that, but I thought (like you might reading this) "oh, these are just people who don't know how to set the phone up correctly..or they use it all the time...". I was wrong. If it weren't for the appalling battery life (or the amount of features disabled to compensate for this), I might have been able to learn to adapt around the other issues - or maybe I could have reflashed the phone - in the hope the Three firmware was responsible for these problems - but, my 2 week return period bearing down on me I made a decision - "it just shouldn't be this hard". I sent it back and ordered myself the iPhone instead...it cost £70 more to do so, but I really don't regret it for a second. If you're in a position to keep the phone on charge for most of the day, the HTC Desire can do some really impressive things - albeit not quite as smoothly as you'd like. For the rest of us, who want a phone to last a full day, the Desire HD just doesn't cut it.
I started climbing around 18 months ago...one of my friends was into it and it seemed like a form of exercise that might not be too miserable - so I gave it a go and really enjoyed it. There was only one small problem - the location. The two options available to me in terms of climbing centres were Craggy Island in Guildford, which was some 90 minutes from home, or Rock Solid in Oxford, which is relatively small and has a habit of getting over-busy. When it was announced, then, that a new climbing centre would open in Reading this year - and that it would be a big one - I was really excited. Set up by John Dunne, the man behind successful climbing centres in Harrogate and Manchester, and targeted as being one of the best centres in the south - it seemed like it would be great - and when it finally opened in September this year, I couldn't wait to get down there to see if it lived up to my expectations. Getting to Reading Climbing Centre isn't too hard, by car at least. It's located on a small industrial estate just to the south of the city centre and is relatively easy to access via the M4 and A33. It's easy to drive past the turn into the estate, but once you're in, the car park is well sign posted and the centre's easy to find. Inside, there's a pretty generous bouldering section for practising short, intense climbs. Although this has only been fully completed in the last month, it is already being well used and enjoyed by the boulderers among us - and has even played host to competitions already. As well as the bouldering, there are around 80-90 full-height (13-14m) routes, some having top-ropes (better suited to beginners), but most set up as lead routes (for intermediate - advanced climbers). The wall itself is one of the best I've seen, it's obviously been carefully designed to provide an array of challenges - from small overhangs, right up to the large arch at the far end. Most routes have at least one type of angle applied at some point and the colours of the wall are bright and clean. The route setting is also particularly strong, providing interesting, fun problems for climbers of all abilities. The centre has just finished resetting all the routes on the main walls, around 2-3 months after opening - so you should never find yourself getting bored of the routes on offer. All that's missing in terms of climbing equipment is any kind of warm up / training area - there's no traversal wall or campus boards, which are quite standard in other centres. After climbing, there's a Picnic cafe, serving cakes, sandwiches, jacket potatoes and hot meals. The quality is good, but this is reflected in the relatively high prices - a toasted sandwich will set you back around £3.50. The centre also has a small room to host parties and an Urban Rock store for all your climbing supplies. There are changing facilities, toilets and showers - as well as ample parking. Regular courses are run for beginners, there are frequent social nights and children's parties are welcome. Overall, the centre is an excellent facility, well thought out and designed - and most importantly a lot of fun to climb! The only downside is the pricing - particularly that of membership. Peak entrance for non-members is 9.75, members 8.75 and membership (albeit for "life") is a whopping £15. Monthly, quarterly and annual passes represent better value for money - but require a large payment up front. There's no kind of multi-buy passes (22 for the price of 20 etc) that you see at other centres. Finally, a 50p charge for using a credit card on transactions under £10 feels like a kick in the teeth. The whole pricing structure, together with the pricey cafe, just make an afternoon climbing at RCC that couple of quid more than climbing at Craggy - but it certainly saves me petrol!
************** **** INTRO **** ************** I very much enjoyed reading JJJJ's review of this album several months back and thought "I'd like to have a listen to that at some point" - so, when my fiancée recently got given the album for her birthday, I stole it and stuck it on my iPod - and there it sat until I got a chance for a listen a couple of weeks back - and I've been listening to it since. I'm not familiar with any of Plan B's other work, so cannot vouch for how much of a departure this album represent - what I can vouch for, however, is the quality and variety of the resulting album. I've always been a fan of albums that tell a story, ever since I first heard Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds as a nipper, but that's not the only thing "The Defamation..." has going for it, it's also a collection of songs that, on their own, are both fun to hear and have some serious musical merit. ************** *** TRACKS **** ************** (slight spoilers) 1. Love Goes Down - this is a smooth opening to the CD, it's a gentle pseudo-lovesong with a fair slab of vintage sounding thrown over the top - very easy listening. 2. Writing's on the Wall - not one of my favourites, I have to say. It retains the vintage sound of Love Goes Down, but loses a little of the smoothness - a slightly edgier vocal just spoilt the illusion a little. 3. Stay Too Long - My runaway favourite on the album - there's a little bit of The Streets about it...This is a substantial leap from the laid-back sound of the opening - featuring several shifts up in gear until the frantic, excited rapping ends at a canter. Great driving music, get it on loud. 4. She Said - Not the happy love song I first heard on the radio, once you listen in on the lyrics - She Said documents Strickland's encounter with an overly-amorous fan - and encounter which, as the title of the album hints, does not end happily. It's still quite a nice sing-along chorus though - and another nice, souldful groove. 5. Welcome to Hell - Strickland's locked up! Still, at least the natives are friendly. Again, this isn't one of my favourites, it's a little too slow, a little self-indulgent if I'm honest. The chorus has an almost gospel overtone, which is certainly different, but not entirely to my taste. 6. Hard Times - Proper vintage sound. Following on from Welcome to Hell is another track that doesn't do a whole lot for me - I don't know if it's because it's a little slow, a little whiney, or whether it's just that the song does little to advance the plot of the album - it's certainly one of the best vocals on the record, though. 7. The Recluse. A song I felt was being overplayed on Radio 1 until I heard the album in it's entirety - now I can't get enough of it. This song, I feel, does the job Hard Times should have done - it sets the mood of the prison, gets you inside Strickland's head a little bit and starts to lay the foundations on which the next few songs will be built. A really fat, warm sound rolls nicely in and out of short rap sections and stops the song from sounding as sampled as it otherwise might have. 8. Traded in my Cigarettes. This one's growing on me the more I hear it - the song explains how Strickland manages to trade in his cigarettes for a makeshift knife "so when they come I can protect myself" - a fine song, featuring a lot of the authenticity of the great tracks on the album, but missing a little "wow" factor. 9. Prayin'. Another of my favourites - I love everything about it. It comes across as being sincere and heartfelt. The vintage sound is there again and we get a good lot of plot advancement - as we see what happens when Strickland's aggressors come to find him once more. 10. Darkest Place. Unsurprisingly dark and moody, this track's Strickland at his lowest, but Plan B singing at his best. 11. Free. Whist I think "Free" is a fairly decent track - and it's clearly been designed to elevate spirits after the downer that is "darkest place", it just seems too abrupt a change and it doesn't seem to fit in at this point in the album - I just don't get it. 12. I know a Song. Again, a little self-indulgent and, dare I say it, wishy-washy, this is supposed to represent Strickland back to his poetic best - but it's certainly no Love Goes Down. 13. What You Gonna Do - the finale to our epic - what's going to happen? Will Strickland be freed on appeal? This is a cracking song, similar in structure to Stay Too Long, it mixes a strong chorus with some excitable rapping to produce a unique and satisfying ending to the album. ******************** **** CONCLUSION **** ******************** Thoroughly enjoyable, tightly produced album. Some great organ sounds throughout and a surprising blend of soul and rap. If a couple more of the tracks had hit the heights of What You Gonna Do, Stay Too Long and The Recluse, it would be a five stars, but a couple of tracks that are more filler than thriller (Hard Times, I Know a Song) let the 5 star review slip.
I've long been of the belief that women judge the jewellery you give them purely on the box in which it's delivered - so when I started thinking about buying my girlfriend an engagement ring, I decided that there aren't very many boxes as impressive as the little blue box of Tiffancy & Co. The Hollywood feel of Tiffany and the premium branding are both things I thought my girlfriend would appreciate, so I decided it would have to be a Tiffany box I presented her with. Having failed to get hold of a box on its own (I kid!), I stopped by Tiffany in Royal Exchange when I was in London for a business trip. The first thing you notice on entering the store is how pristine everything is - it's not super-modern and plush, but everything's exactly where it should be, brilliantly clean and exudes quality. Upon speaking to the staff, however, was when things started to get really impressive. The gentleman who served me actually had a degree in gemology and consequently knew *a lot* about diamonds. He was also very well spoken, polite and professional. He spent a great deal of time patiently explaining to me the difference between all of the different rings, what I should be looking for and so on. Actually quite early on in the process I came across "the one" - I don't know what it was about it, it just seemed to sparkle a little more than the others, it seemed in particularly good proportion and I could just see my girlfriend wearing it - so, after going through all of the other rings available (just to be sure) - I purchased. The ring came beautifully wrapped. It was polished, then put inside a plain, dark ring box - very simple, but well made, with just "Tiffany & Co" written on the inside of the lid. That box was then placed inside the famous "little blue box" and the whole thing was tied in white ribbon - it looked pretty as a picture. I was a little disappointed, in fact, that I had to remove the ribbon and little blue box myself in order to present the ring in the traditional style. When it arrived a couple of weeks later, the certificate was also beautifully presented in a small wallet, all using really nice heavyweight paper and classy typeface. I actually visited a different store (Westfield) a couple more times before the proposal - just to arrange for the ring to be resized - throughout all visits I had the same impression of a high quality, professional establishment. Thankfully, the proposal went brilliantly and my fiancée absolutely loves her Tiffany engagement ring - so much so we've just been back to purchase the matching wedding band (which, this time, she got to see all wrapped up properly). Everywhere we go she gets compliments on the ring which is, I must admit, beautiful - even to the untrained eye it's a remarkably transparent and white looking diamond - and it really catches the light. Overall, I've been incredibly impressed with Tiffany from start to finish - the quality of their brand is matched by the quality of the product and the staff. My only slight concern is - will other jewellery ever be good enough again?