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Size never used to matter. At least not once you got up to 32". In the good old days 32" was pretty much all you ever needed - and a good job too because anything bigger weighed near 100kg and would destroy most TV cabinets!
With the advent of flat panel displays and projectors, all that changed. Now size does matter because you can go all the way up to a ridiculous 70" screen or, with a projector, the wall's the limit! But why would anyone want a bigger screen than they might already have?
Well for a start, there are a lot more native widescreen broadcasts than there used to be - films and football matches in particular benefit from this, after all there's not much value in seeing an extra 2 inches of the newsroom at 6 o'clock. Add to that the fact that a standard has been set for "High Definition" TV, which Sky will begin broadcasting this year and things start to look even more interesting. Finally, DVD players are now dirt-cheap, even integrated home cinema systems are coming down to around £150, so with a big, widescreen TV you really can get the cinema experience at home. The curious thing about all these improvements in image quality is that, rather than allowing you to sit further away they actually benefit you sitting slightly closer, so that you can make out more detail!
But bigger isn't necessarily better! When choosing a TV it is important to consider the size of your room, and not just the room, but your seating positions in the room. The reason for this is that, if you sit too far away obviously the screen will appear small and it will be hard to make things out. Equally, if you are sitting too close, it will be like being at the front row of the cinema and you will struggle to take in the whole picture.
As a rough guide, I've found the following ranges useful:
Screen Size Min Distance Max Distance
30" 1.2m 2.3m
34" 1.3m 2.6m
42" 1.6m 3.2m
50" 1.8m 3.8m
60" 2.3m 4.6m
That said, it's time to reveal that my reasonably small lounge means our usual seating positions when watching TV are around 2m and 3m from the screen, so when it came to an upgrade a 42" display was a good balance of size and cost.
The next question was which technology to buy - Plasma or LCD. This is quite a tough choice, until you take cost into consideration, at which point Plasma wins hands down. As a brief description of the differences between the two, Plasma is more like traditional TVs in that each individual pixel on the scree emits light. Consequently Plasma screens tend to be nice and bright. What it dos mean though is that, like traditional TVs, they are prone to the dreaded screen-burn. If there's a part of the picture that doesn't change much, you will eventually end up with a ghostly image of it burned into the display should you ever change channels. Prime culprits of this are the logos that satellite & cable TV channels tend to place in the corners of the screen. LCD displays, on the other hand are based on the same technology as flat-panel PC monitors. They work on a uniform light source behind a layer of polarizing liquid crystal pixels, in which the polarization controls the colour of light passing through the pixel. Because the individual pixels act as more of a "tinted window" for a rear-mounted light source, they don't suffer from screen burn. What they do have problems with though is viewing angle, brightness and speed of response. Each of these problems is improved upon with each generation of LCD display; viewing angle is now at around 170 degrees which means you will only be unable to see the image if you re near horixontal to the screen, while brightness and response times re now getting to the point where they are hardly issues at all.
So on the face of it, LCD is the preferred technology - it offers the benefits of a flat screen, typically with lower power consumption and none of the worries relating to "Sky" logos burning into the top right corner of your screen. Unfortunately, the manufacturing process for LCDs is more expensive and, typically a large LCD screen will cost somewhere near twice as much as the same sized Plasma screen.
There are no surprises then that we bought a Plasma. And, as you will have guessed from the category, we bought a Hitachi 42PD7200, which is a 42" plasma display panel with a few whiz-bang features that, at the price, set it apart from everything else.
Now you already know why we bought a 42" screen. And you know why it was a Plasma rather than an LCD, but there's so much choice in the market these days - why did we buy the Hitachi 7200?
First off, we bought it because it's capable of showing the new standard High Definition (HD) pictures. With a resolution of 1024 x 1024 and support (for those that want to know) for up to 1080i, it has enough pixels to do justice to any of the soon-to-be-broadcast signals. The same holds true for high-definition DVDs (when they finally settle on a standard). So in this regard, the screen is relatively future proof and our investment should last a good few years. Given the cost, this is a "good thing"!
But screen resolution is no use on its own. Unfortunately, the broadcasting industry has decided that HD signals can't be sent over regular SCART cables. Allegedly they don't offer the bandwidth/quality - so the industry invented a new interface, the High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI). What's more, they decided that people shouldn't be able to make copies of stuff they'd paid for. Oh no! HD needed copy protection so Intel came up with High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP). Both HDMI and HDCP got paired up and it's likely to be the case that, to display HD broadcasts you will need at least one HDCP enabled HDMI interface on your TV. It's not by accident then that the 42PD7200 has one of these interfaces. Just one mind, so if you end up with multiple HDMI sources you will till need to buy a external switch.
Not content with wanting to be able to watch HDTV broadcasts (eventually), I also wanted to watch high-quality DVD pictures AND run PC in the lounge. For this, I needed another two interfaces and again the 42PD7200 fits the bill perfectly.
DVD players tend to support SCART, but SCART isn't the best. Better is "Component" video, where the primary colours (Red, Green and Blue) that make up the picture are sent separately and recombined by the display. Component output is increasing common on mid-range DVD players, it's invariably 3 colour-coded phono-type plugs. The 42PD7200 has a single set of component inputs, but this should be enough for most uses.
For my PC connection, the 42PD7200 provides either DVI (as found on flatscreen computer monitors) or RGB (as found on older, CRT computer monitors). So I could actually have two PCs connected to it!
Finally, for the array of "other" devices like PS2s, cable-TV boxes, cam-corders and VCRs there are 3 SCART sockets and a composite socket (with accompanying stereo sound inputs).
In the connectivity stakes it's fair to say that you will be hard-pushed to find set better connected. A staggering 6 AV sockets are provided; 3 SCART (two of which are RGB), one Component, one Composite and one HDMI, with an additional two RGB sockets (one of which is DVI) for a total of 8 devices that could be connected at any one time (although not all being displayed, obviously). There's also a built-in TV tuner (although it can't pick up digital TV), with the obligatory connector for your co-axial TV aerial. Finally, they have even include a composite out terminal so that you can hoot the set up to a VCR and record what you're seeing on a second VCR or similar (should you want to).
But regardless of how well connected it is, LegendaryMrsDude wouldn't have it in the house if it didn't look half decent. Thankfully, the simple styling pays dividends there too. The scree has a pearlescent black border, about 2" thick all the way around with a slim, brushed-aluminium trim top and bottom. It comes with bolt-on speakers that increase the width of the set by around 7" - 8" in total but they are finished in brushed aluminium and don't look out of place. It sits atop a swivel base that allows you to adjust the angle of the screen (from the remote control!!!). All things considered, it looks a very tidy package. Not overly flash, nor purely functional.
At about 40Kg it's way lighter than our previous widescreen 32" but still heavy enough that, because of it's size you will need two people to lift it. Once in place, the connections on the back are clearly labelled and setup shouldn't take long at all. There are cable ties and routing guides on the back to make sure that everything routes behind the thick swivel base so that there aren't any unsightly spaghetti messes of cables in sight - but given the number of connections it supports it just means that you can't see the mess there are still a LOT of wires involved!
Once wired up and plugged in, you turn it on and it does the usual trick of auto-setting up. Scanning through all the channels it can find on it's built-in tuner and sorting them into the familiar order (which you can change using the remote and menu system later if you prefer). That done, you're pretty much good to go.
The remote is a classy looking thing, and certainly not to be found wanting for buttons. From the remote you can control every aspect of the TV, including the angle that it is swivelled on the stand (a great gimmick that you only use once or twice, but it always amuses the nephews). It's sensibly laid out and clearly labelled. My only gripe is that it doesn't have a backlight or any glow-in-the-dark buttons, so mid-film you may find yourself squinting and holding the remote at odd angles to the screen to try and throw a bit of light on the subject. One nice feature of the remote, especially given the 8 possible inputs, is that each source has it's own button so there's no more pressing the AV button and cycling through all the options, you just press the button for the one you want. If you've get a lot of sources connected this does take some getting used to before you remember which source is connected to which AV port, but you get the hang of it eventually. I'll include a photo of the remote, so won't spend any more time on it here as a picture paints a thousand words
And speaking of pictures, what is the picture on the 42PD7200 like? After all, it could be the nicest looking, best connected TV in the world but if the picture is useless it's as much use as a chocolate teapot. Fortunately, this isn't the case and the picture easily matches up to the looks and connectivity. I haven't been able to try it out with a HD source yet but when watching DVDs via the component interface (which is the highest-quality image source I have available) the clarity of the image is remarkable. Yes, if you sit too close, you will see pixilation and artefacts in the image, but sit at the right distance and the experience is truly cinematic. The graduation of colour is excellent and the contrast very good. This is probably thanks to all the technical processing wizardry that's going on behind the scenes, all of which is adjustable using the remote to drive the vast array of image processing options. Here it becomes impossible to do justice to the "tweakability" of the image in a review - the options are incredible. All I can suggest is that you visit the Hitachi website and download a copy of either the product brochure or the manual. Also useful is a search of websites like the AVreview Forum, where you will find settings that other people have used to get the picture they consider to be the best. From my experience though, the default presets (of which there are three; Natural, Dynamic and Movie, selectable through a button on the remote) are perfectly adequate.
The signal from a PC is remarkably crisp when connected by DVI and makes maximum use of the resolution of the screen. Far better than a CRT display, it is now entirely possible to browse the web, do email and even play games on the PC in the lounge, mainly because of the improved resolution but also because of the digital nature of the display. I even use the PC as a personal video recorder, thanks to a built-in DVB receiver card ad it displays recorded programmes in full-screen mode that are at least as good as they would have been watching them live.
One of the problems that older generation Plasma screens had was with the reproduction of black as a colour. Because Plasmas work by emitting light and because there's no such thing as "black light", they have typically struggled. While maybe not class-leading (an honour that has long rested with Panasonic displays), the Hitachi does a fine job - certainly the ring-wraiths in "Fellowship of The Ring" were suitably black but still retained the detail in their tattered cloaks.
The other problem with Plasmas (and pretty much all TVs that do image processing, including the 100Hz CRT sets) is image artefacts. The perfect example of this is found when watching a football match and the camera pans quickly to follow a long ball down the field. The pitch can often break up into a series of large green squares and, for a brief moment, things become decidedly cubist. Alas, this is still a problem on the Hitachi but not as big a problem as it was on my old 32" 100Hz CRT set. What's more I've found that, by tweaking with some of the image processing options, you can reduce the effect further. At the end of the day though, it's something you get used to and, it seems to be worst on broadcast images - I can't recall seeing this problem when watching a DVD. One advantage of the image processing are the tricks that Hitachi have built in to try and stop screen burn from the dreaded sky logos - deep in the image setup menus are options tat will subtly move the picture around - not enough to notice, but enough that, in theory at least, the chances of screen burn should be significantly reduced.
If it all sounds pretty wonderful, that's probably because it is. There are a few things that I can't comment on because I haven't used them yet. For example, I haven't attached the supplied speakers, I think the set looks better without them plus our sound comes out of an amplifier with it's own speakers. The least I can do then is to tell you of what the manual claims is possible. Similar to the 3 modes to optimize the picture, there are 3 modes to optimize the sound covering Movies, Music and Speech, with a 4th setting to save personal preferences in. As you would expect, each of the basic aspects of the sound is tweakable, trebls, bass and balance are all user-tunable with the addition of Bass-Boost. Finally, there's the option to enable "matrix" sound and "perfect volume". The former tries to simulate the effect of listening to the TV in a stadium - probably intended for the football fans, while the latter averages out the volume across channels so that you're not forever turning te sound up and down (although I doubt it will help with the sound compression they use on adverts!).
So not only can I not tell you about how it sounds, nor can I vouch for the quality of a picture over the HDMI interface as I don't have any HDMI-capable sources yet. All thing digital being relatively equal though, I would suspect tat it's just as good as the DVI connection - after all they're basically the same protocol for the image it's just that HDMI includes audio as wel.
Some other neat but never-used features include:
The ability to have multiple pictures on the screen so you could view two, four or twelve(!) sources, either side-by-side or picture-in-picture, at the same time. In this case you would probably want the supplied speakers to be attached so that you could better control which sound was playing.
The ability to change the aspect ration and zoom level of the picture - handy but not frequently.
Picture freeze - think of it as a single frame pause button for the TV. Unfortunately it doesn't do anything more than take a single-frame snapshot from whichever source you happen to be viewing. It will also let you take 12 freeze-frames in quick succession. Again nice, but I've not found a use for it yet.
So are there any bad points to it? If I had to pick any, then it would have to be the ever-so-slight delay in sound/video synchronisation that arises when watching a DVD. Apparently it's because the display has to perform some complex image processing before it actually shows a picture. As there's no synchronisation link between the display and the DVD player, this means that you can end up with a fraction of a second lag between the image and the sound. In most DVDs this isn't noticeable, but in scenes where there's an extended piece of dialogue it does become noticeable. Apparently it's an inherent problem in setups with Plasma (and LCD) screens where the sound is handled by a different processor - there are options to overcome it such as signal delay devices (for about £150) or the more expensive amplifiers can add delay to the sound themselves so be aware of it before you buy, whichever scree you end up with.
More specific to the 42PD7200, the complexity of setup is probably my main gripe. There is menu after sub-menu to trawl through and the manual, which comprehensive in terms of the options it covers, doesn't do a particularly good job of explaining the effect that each setting change is likely to have. So trial and error plus a good memory is about the only way you will get it set up exactly to your liking (should you be unhappy with the defaults). The tuner also seems a bit poor although this is just as likely to be our shoddy aerial as anything. Another point to re-emphasize is that the tuner is analogue only - soon after I bought this, Hitachi released the PDP7500 which came with a DVB tuner built in (although for a couple of hundred pounds more). But other than that, I can't really fault it.
In terms of price, it was launched with a MRRP of £2500 which was good value considering it's HD spec and the amount of connectivity. This soon fell and I picked up mine back in September for £1900 from Currys with free delivery (which is important because, unless you've got a van, it won't fit in the back of your car!). The latest prices on Ciao would indicate that it's now available for as low as £1750. Considering I thought it a bargain at £1900, a further £150 off makes it a steal.
If you're in the market for a large screen TV that's HD ready with excellent connectivity and a strong picture, for the money you will be extremely hard-pushed to find anything better,
Would I recommend it?
This is the third Antec PC case I've bought, and the second from their classy-looking "Lifestyle" range. So they must be doing something right!
"Why," I hear you ask, "have you bought 3 PC cases?" Well, truth be told, I'm something of a geek. I have a multitude of PCs in my house. Most of them are the result of compulsive upgrading, where a system upgrade leaves me with enough "bits" left over to build another Frankenstein PC. The problem with this is that all the "insides" end up needing a new "outside" to put them in. And so I end up needing new PC cases.
This particular case was bought when I decided I was going to turn some spare hardware into a media-PC for the lounge. With the addition of a TV-tuner and a video card capable of displaying on a TV-set, I'd have my own, home-grown version of Sky Plus, without having to pay Mr Murdoch a subscription fee! Not to mention the ability to play all my MP3s in the stereo in the lounge, my own never-ending jukebox that doesn't need the CD changing - ever.
Now there are some important points to consider when building a PC for the lounge. First off, it's got to look the part or LegendaryMrsDude will have it up in the loft in no time - on a charge of "looking untidy". This means that it's got to blend in with all the other bits & pieces under the telly, which invariable means either black or silver finish. The Overture II scores well here, being both "piano black" gloss AND silver (on the front panel). Being approximately the same size as a standard amplifier, it also maintains reasonable proportions and doesn't look too out of place.
Secondly, it's got to be quiet. At least quiet enough that you can't hear it when the TV is on but ideally quiet enough that you don't notice it when the TV is off. It's at this point that I would mention how surprisingly noisy PCs actually are... If you've never listened to one before, you probably wouldn't consider it but the shrill, incessant whine of a hard drive and the low rumble of various cooling fans can become obtrusive in the setting of a lounge, particularly when they're ever-present. On this point, the Overture II scores only reasonably - while it comes with the usual Antec array of rubber grommets for mounting fans and Hard drives and while they do dampen the noise of those components, it also comes with a varied assortment of fans and blowers to shed heat from the case. Combined with large areas of highly ventilated case (there's lots of vents, holes and grilles all over it), this actually results in a moderately noisy enclosure.
Thirdly, it's got to have enough space to fit in all the bits you need to fit in - hard drives, DVD drives and expansion cards must all be catered for to reasonable levels. The Overture II does well here, with two internal and two external 3.25" bays as well as two 5.25" external bays your storage needs should be catered for, if not quite as well as with a tower case. It also has good room for expansion cards with 6 plates at the rear providing enough room for the USB plates and 3 / 4 PCI cards should you need them.
Finally, it needs enough power to do the job, again delivered as quietly as possible. As with other Antec cases in the LifeStyle range, this is catered for by the supplied Antec PSU that has smart fans and other technical trickery to ensure that it runs as quietly as possible without blowing up (although it still gets very warm to the touch).
So with those key points in mind, I bought one.
It arrived, much like the Sonata I'd bought previously, in a sturdy cardboard box that was covered with glossy, high-resolution, colour images of the contents. They take a great deal of pride in their merchandise, those folks at Antec. Being from the Lifestyle range and coming in the same high-gloss "piano black" finish as the Sonata, I wasn't too surprised at the amount of internal packaging either. Lots of sturdy polystyrene and a lovely white cloth bag wrapped it up and protected it from scratches to the delicate paint job. There's even a polishing cloth supplied to get the best from the high-shine paint!
Being a desktop case, the construction is slightly different to the Sonata. This time it's the top panel that slides neatly off, after removing the thumb-screws, to provided reasonably unobstructed access to the insides. Solid, rubber feet maintain a healthy clearance (about 5 - 8mm) from the ground, but don't sit it on carpet - the pile will interfere with the airflow and things will quickly overheat.
On removing the lid, the first thing you notice is the location of the Power Supply. It's not at the back, where you would normally expect to find it. Oh no, those clever folks at Antec have put it at the front of the case. This has the result of providing lots of room around the motherboard and allowing for a more accessible location for the hard drives. The two internal drives are mounted in a removable chassis in approximately the same places as you would normally find the power supply!
As you would expect, there's a big old fan (92mm diameter) strapped to the back wall of the case to evacuate hot air in an effective fashion. As you would also expect (if you've read my review of the Sonata) this fan is mounted on rubber grommets to keep the vibrations and noise to a minimum. Intriguingly, Antec have also put two blower-type fans underneath the hard drive caddy, presumably to get rid of the heat that HDs create more effectively, although they obviously add to the overall noise of the system.
There's just enough space for a full-sized ATX motherboard, with the usual swappable back-plate allowing for whatever configuration your motherboard comes with on its rear interface panel - the supplied back-plate will suit only the most basic of motherboards. The motherboard itself is mounted on brass posts, plenty of which come in the supplied bag of assorted fixtures and fittings.
The 5.25" bays at the front are a neat affair. The whole caddy is attached to the case by screw-less release mechanism - just press a button and swing a lever and caddy containing both bays comes away at once making it a lot easier to fit the drives themselves (although not necessarily any easier to attach the cables). The externally available 3.25" drives are easily accessed too, though they sit atop the oddly located PSU and so get very hot, making them not at all suitable for hard drives. Best leave them for "novelty" expansions like 8-in-1 media card readers or maybe floppy drives.
Construction is typically solid professional. There are no sharp edges, everything fits just right and the finishing is superb. As already mentioned, there are more ventilation features than normal on a desktop case. The PSU vents to the underside of the case and breathes cool air in from the side. The graphics card has some ventilation cut into the lid above it, alongside a respectable expanse of holes in the lid right above the CPU to provide extensive cooling. Unfortunately all these perforations mean that dust can enter the case all too easily. Already my CPU heatsink is covered in "muck" and it's only been running a month! It would have been nice if Antec had fitted a dust-filter here. Then there are the two 75mm blowers on underneath the hard drives that vent to the right hand side and, last but not least, the 92mm fan at the back of the case which has three possible speed settings to help keep the noise down.
The silver fascia is very neat, with header cables providing two USB2.0 ports and a firewire port right where you need them - it looks just the part underneath the TV. There's also a microphone and headphone socket but these will need the appropriate connections on the motherboard - and this doesn't include Giga-Byte motherboards! Also on the front is the amazingly large, round power button that is surrounded by the obligatory blue LED which shines with incredible brightness. I've not found the power connection to turn this off yet, but I'm not sure I would want to - it actually looks quite neat. The HD light on the other hand is a weedy amber affair that you can't even notice in bright sunlight. Ho-hum.
In conclusion then, this is another fine case from Antec. Solidly built, well designed and to a good spec when you consider that it includes all the case fans and a 450W power supply with plenty of outputs (including SATA) to boot. Expansion is excellent as is the cooling capacity although it is rather heavy, especially once full of kit.
On the down-side, the piano black finish attracts dust like there's no tomorrow and there's no number of free polishing cloths that will help prevent it from gathering. The silver fascia will mean that you need to buy silver CD/DVD drives unless you don't mind it looking distinctly odd. It's also a little noisy. Despite the LifeStyle tag and the claims of low noise output, I still find it to be audible, but not quite annoying, in a quiet room. It will, however cope with some of the hottest CPUs and graphics cards around and in that context; it is actually a reasonably quiet choice, especially if backed up by the selection of the quieter technologies for the insides (like low-speed or silent CPU fans and heat-pipe cooled graphics cards.
Considering the market it's aimed at - it's specifically targeted at media-centre type PCs - it puts most of the competition to shame. While it doesn't have the compactness of quietness of a "Shuttle" type case, it does offer far greater flexibility than those "barebones" systems. It also looks good. The styling is subtle enough that it blends in well with its surroundings. The quality shines through as well. Build and design are both excellent.
In summary then, I can only truthfully award 4 stars. It does what it says on the tin and it does it in style - BUT it's still noisy enough to be heard. At £80 you could consider this a tad expensive but when you take into account the build quality - and considering that a half-decent 450W PSU would probably set you back the best part of £40 anyway, this is really good value.
When I used to have a paper-round, an essential piece of kit was my trusty walkman. He kept me company on the 7 mile bike-ride that I did at 5:30 every morning for over 2 years. As I grew older and my working habits changed we drifted apart
I saw him less and less until we inevitably went our separate ways.
For more than 10 years my life went along fine without the need to carry music with me wherever I went. Technologies came and went - portable CDplayers, Mini-Disc players and the first MP3 players. I had CDs and the radio in the car. I didn't need music anywhere else and I didn't want to be just another obnoxious MP3-playing moron who's music sounds, to the rest of the world, like a fight in a bacofoil factory. So I resisted the temptation to buy anything.
Resisted, that is, until a few months ago. I am now the owner of a shiny, black 60Gb iPod Video.
Why this sudden change of heart after all this time? I put it down to my working habits again. I tend to travel a reasonable amount, less in the car and more by other means. I like to try and get some work done during this time but find the noise can be distracting - it's far easier for me to concentrate if I have some music on in the background. Add to that the fact that my CD-changer in the car had broken and my need for portable music had returned.
So why the iPod? If truth be told, it was a lazy option. It is something like the 3rd generation of the device so I figured that most of the problems should have been addressed by now. It also has a respectable amount of storage - enough to store my entire music collection (at the moment), so it removes the hassle of choosing what to add and what to leave. It looks nice - it's designed by Apple after all. And it's small enough to carry with me but big enough that I won't worry about leaving it anywhere. That it can play video wasn't a factor in my decision making.
I've owned it for over 2 months now and have used it on more than a few occasions. What follows are my experiences with it.
You all know it looks stunning. In shiny black with the chrome back it oozes style. The mix of a flat front and rounded corners makes it look nicer than the earlier models. It's about the same size as the original, maybe a little thinner thanks to the flat front. It still fits snugly into the palm of your hand, if anything it's a better size than the smaller nanos as the ergonomics just fit better. It's slightly too heavy for a shirt pocket - it will cause noticeable "sag" but you can easily carry it in the inside pocket of a suit jacket without any unsightly bulges.
If only it was made of tougher stuff. Within a week of ownership, my iPod had picked up some sizeable scars on it's shiny plastic face. These could only have happened because a minute grain of dirt got stuck in the protective casing, which is such a snug fit that the pressure of inserting & removing the iPod must have cause it to scratch. That said, it's pretty robust - I've already dropped it once (from about 4 feet high onto a laminate wooden floor) and it survived. The chrome back is more robust but so highly polished that it picks up fingerprints from 20 yards - which means that every time LegendaryMrsDude sees it, she starts polishing it!
The Colour screen dominates the front of the device - easily bigger than the original iPods and far easier to read as well. The click wheel is black as well, with menu / play / forward / back controls embedded at the cardinal points of the compass and the middle acting as a selection button.
It's with the click-wheel that I have my biggest issue. It may be unfamiliarity or it could be fat fingers, but I have real problems with the scroll-wheel. I find it way too sensitive at times - the selected item skips from one to the next at the slightest touch. The fact that the select button is in the middle has lead to me "nudging" the scroll wheel just as I'm about to select a menu choice. This usually sees me shuffling my songs for the umpteenth time, typically half way through one of my favourite tunes.
The menu system itself is reasonably easy to navigate - scroll the click wheel round to move up/down the list and hit the select button to choose your option. The "menu" button takes you back up a level. The various settings can be changed easily enough and they are all self explanatory - I've not read the instructions yet although it wouldn't take long, you get a flimsy booklet. There are a few games included, solitaire, parachutes, brick and Music Quiz. Music quiz is the only one worth playing in my view - it takes a random selection of your tunes and gives you a list of options to guess from while it plays a snippet. Very similar to the Lionel Blair classic "Name That Tune", the quicker you get it, the more points you score. It's a good way to learn how much cr@p there is in your music collection!
There's a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of the device, along with a "hold" button which is effectively a key-lock - an incredibly handy thing given the sensitivity of the clickwheel! My gripe here is that I don't think the hold button is always 100% effective. Maybe I'm not pushing it all the way across but there have been more than a few occasions when I've dug it out of my pocket to find it 100 songs further into my playlist and the battery correspondingly lower.
At the bottom of the device is the iPod docking port, a rather complex affair that the supplied (white) USB cable plugs in to. This serves to both charge the internal battery (which will last anywhere between 2 - 20 hours depending on whether you're watching videos or just listening to music) and transfer music, video and general files across to the device. The supplied cable is typically Apple, white enough that it gets grubby in no time and short enough that you have to hope your USB ports aren't just on the back of your PC - a USB hub or extension cable will be needed if your PC is under a desk!
As well as the link cable, the iPod is supplied with the ubiquitous "earbud" headphones. Also in white. Not only do they advertise the fact that you've got an iPod to would-be muggers, I also found them to be relatively poor and have replaced them with my Sennheiser Noise cancelling 'phones (reviewed elsewhere on Ciao) - they are far better when travelling.
Of course it comes with a CD as well, a good job too as you can't use your iPod without iTunes. I tried using Windows Media Player and it spent a whole day copying music over to the device but the iPod stoutly refused to acknowledge the existence of the music. So I had to delete it all and repeat the whole process though iTunes. As this isn't a review of the software I won't go into the details of iTunes. Which is a good thing as the jury is still out on that one. It does appear to be the only place you can buy videos from that will play on your iPod but I have to admit that the thought of having to look at the screen while listening to music doesn't appeal to me. I was disappointed that it didn't come with sample video - preferably of Rachel Stevens - so that I could show it to my mates. But I certainly won't be going and forking out the requisite £2 for 3 minutes of footage! There is a growing range of software that will do video conversion so that stuff can play on your iPod Video but if you're honest, would you ever really bother? Things may change in this regard as Apple start offering advance access to popular TV shows through iTunes. I imagine people would happily pay £5 for early access to episodes from the next season of "24" for example - heck I could even be tempted. While the screen is bigger than previous versions it's still tiny - especially when compared to something like the PSP.
For playing music though, the iPod Video is outstanding. Sound quality is as good as the rate at which you've encoded your music. Lower bit-rates will produce obvious distortion but then they would on any player. Higher bitrates come through wonderfully. There is a range if equalisation settings to suit your personal tastes e.g. Rock, Vocal, Dance etc. but I prefer to leave things unequalised as it does a great job of reproducing the original.
The volume level is OK, on quiet MP3s you may struggle a bit but any louder and you could easily deafen yourself. It would be nice if someone invented an MP3 player that sensed the volume of the files and adjusted the output to maintain a set level maybe in the next version. This is one of the reasons why I wear the noise cancelling headphones - it allows you to play the music at a much lower volume so there's less chance of damaging your ears.
Sorting through your music is easy. Provided all your meta-tags are in place you can browse by genre or artist. Support for pre-defined playlists is also good and you can add tunes to a dynamic playlist as you go. I've never actually used a playlist though, preferring to shuffle the whole library and hear a random selection.
And that's about your lot. I paid $399 for it in the US which, given the exchange rate at the time worked out to be slightly over £200. In the UK it retails for closer to £300 and is likely to remain there until at least well into next year.
Is it good value for money? Probably not. You can get similar devices for slightly less. I consider it to be a bit of a luxury item, you pay a premium for the brand, the design and the fact that it can play video. But there are benefits. The 60Gb storage is unparalleled at the moment, despite the fact that you loose approximately 5Gb to the formatting gremlins - leaving around 55Gb as useable space. The battery life, while not brilliant, is acceptable it will certainly last 8 - 10 hours under normal circumstances. It's small enough and stylish enough to carry with you every day but invest in a protective case or it will be scratched, battered and bruised before you know it. Also make sure you put the keylock properly on or your battery will be flat before you know it. You will probably also need to invest in a decent set of headphones and either a docking station or a mains charger - neither of which come supplied. So the iPod is even more expensive that first appearances. All things considered, I can only really award it 4 stars.
Some time ago I bought myself into the Minolta way of photography and over the years my kit-bag has grown to contain various Minolta camera bodies, lenses and accessories. So it's hardly surprising that I have waited until Minolta (now Konica Minolta) released a proper Digital SLR, that would allow me to use the majority of my existing kit, before I jumped into the expensive world of "pro-sumer" digital SLRs. While Minolta have been happily releasing model after model of SLR-a-like cameras with integrated lenses, there has been a distinct lack of a true SLR system. You can imagine my excitement then, when I heard that a digital version of my beloved 35mm Dynax7 was under development. Months seemed to pass and eventually I forgot all about it, until one day I decided to catch up with the folks at my local Jessops store and stumbled across the newly released, and long-awaited, Dynax 7D.
To be honest, my buying one was a forgone conclusion. My only digital camera, a Fuji Finepix F601Z, never gets used for more than the occasional happy-snap, and my trusty Dynax 7 has been my photographic workhorse since it was acquired over 2 years ago. In fact my old Dynax 505 still sees more action than my Fuji. But I have been spoiled by the ease with which photos can be produced from digital and the pain of film is beginning to take it's toll on my photographic urges. While I still shoot at least 4 - 5 rolls of film when away on a trip, my weekend jaunts to find something interesting have recently become few and far between. I needed the convenience of digital and the control of a proper SLR, but I didn't want to have to throw away all my existing kit and start again from scratch. The Dynax 7D is the answer.
Weighing in with a technical spec that boasts a moderate (by today's standard) 6m pixel resolution, a standard Minolta AF lens mount and support for Compact Flash (types I and II) storage, the asking price of £1150 seemed a little steep but being a glutton for new technology I stumped up. Sure enough, the more sensible folks will have waited and the price has come down considerably to somewhere around £800 at the time of writing. Especially when compared to some of the more reasonably priced digital SLRs that have come on to the market in recent months. The dedicated website is full of all manner of impressive sounding features, enhanced this, optimum that, reduced the other, but ultimately this camera is selling into a market that has been crying out for it. If you are a long-time Minolta fan with a bag-full of lenses and, like me you have been waiting for a Minolta digi-SLR then your prayers have been answered. If you're a long-time Minolta fan with a bag full of kit and are still unconvinced about this whole "digital revolution", or you are just picking up photography and haven't committed to a "system" yet then the Dynax 7-D is (possibly) just the thing for you.
Aimed squarely at the pro-sumer market (with a price-tag to match), the 7D is a purposeful looking piece of kit. From the front, top, bottom and sides, it's could easily be mistaken for the 35mm Dynax 7. It's slightly heavier and some of the less useful features have been left out, but otherwise it's near identical. Finished in matt black plastic & rubber, it's only slightly chunkier than it's 35mm sibling. It has the same dial layout, exposure and flash compensation (in either 1/2 or 1/3 stop intervals) is set by a dial on the left of the top-plate, program and transport modes set by a dial on the right-hand side. Missing from the top plate is the LCD film counter (mainly because there's no film). Instead it is replaced by a switch that allows for rapid selection of the White-Balance function, a handy feature that allows you to correct for the colour cast given by some light sources by quickly switching between auto and user-programmable modes.
Control wheels sit under the index finger and thumb of the right hand and can be configured to control various aspects of the cameras operation with the defaults being aperture and shutter speed (depending on the mode of the camera). The rear of the camera is home to a thumb-pad to the right of the LCD that controls the menu system and can also be used to select the focus/metering area. There's also a button for quickly changing the ISO rating of the CCD (from anywhere between 100 and 3200), a row of buttons for managing the stored images (including flicking through, zooming and deleting) as well as the generous LCD screen (measured at about 7cm diagonal). Last but by no means least there's also the Anti-Shake button that lets you turn this wonderful feature on and off. On the underneath you will find the tripod screw-mount and the battery compartment which takes a custom-format Minolta NP-400 Lithium-Ion battery. All other interfaces to the camera are found on the left or right hand side panels. The left is home to the remote flash socket, a custom Minolta (electronic) remote-release socket and a 6v DC power socket for when you are doing studio work. The right-hand side is home to the USB interface (which is USB 2 compatible) and the compact flash socket which sits behind a substantial flip-up cover. All interface ports are protected by either rubber flaps that remain attached but flip out of the way or slide-back covers, which ensures that you never lose one of them.
In use it handles well. Despite the heavier than expected body-weight it is well balanced and the rubberised grip gives a very sure feel. The control layout itself is typical Minolta so anyone familiar with the system will be at home straight away. Anyone new to Minolta will have picked it up within 15 minutes. Lenses are easily changed, batteries easily loaded and memory cards easily swapped. Dioptre adjustment is available on the viewfinder and theres even a marking to indicate the film plane on the camera body. Everything appears to have been well thought-out and, after 3 weeks of almost solid use, the only complaint I have is the re-designed Depth-of-Field Preview button, which is a bit fiddlier to use than the old Dynax 7. Focus is very fast; although Im not sure its quite as fast as the old Dynax 7. Manual focus is still engaged through the depression of the clutch button and the mode of operation can now be adjusted between on while depressed or on/off with each press. There is also a Minolta Flash hot-shoe on the top so that you can replace the in-built GN13 flash, which actually has a very respectable coverage. Wireless Flash is also supported, as is rear-curtain sync, red-eye reduction and high-speed flash (the latter provided you are using the suitably expensive Minolta dedicated flashguns).
The only other point to note is that lens-lengths arent quite the same thanks to the fact that the CCD is smaller than 35mm film, so you can effectively multiply lens lengths by 1.5x. So a 50mm lens with 35mm film effectively becomes a 75mm lens on the 7D, with a correspondingly narrower field of view, but this is pretty much transparent in use as the viewfinder still shows almost exactly what you are going to get (to within 95%). At this point, you should be wary of the new breed of super-cheap lenses coming out from the likes of Sigma. They are a LOT cheaper than their 35mm equivalents an 18 - 50mm zoom costs just £89 with a review to follow shortly but this is because they cater for the smaller frame size of the digital cameras. So, while they will fit the lens mount of your old Minolta bodies, they wont be any good for aking photos
Thats pretty much all the traditional camera stuff out of the way and it has to be said that the Dynax 7D is a very well thought out piece of kit that has taken a lot of obvious customer feedback on the original Dynax 7 (which was also a fine camera) and evolved the design. But there have been some significant changes under the bonnet. Film chambers and transport have given way to digital gadgetry of an impressive level, with the most impressive piece arguably being the new Anti-Shake CCD arrangement. Rather than repeatedly sell expensive anti-shake technology that moves the elements of a lens to compensate for camera shake, Minolta have seized the opportunity offered by digital to move the image capture device instead. While theoretically harder, this approach has the benefit of making anti-shake available to ALL lenses, without the need for expensive upgrades. But does Anti-Shake work? After all, its one of the bigger differentiators between the 7D and its competition. The simple answer is yes, but this doesnt quite tell you the whole story. As anyone will tell you, there are a number of factors that contribute to camera shake ruining a picture, the mains ones being the exposure value and the focal length of the lens. It must be made clear that Anti-Shake cannot work miracles. If you are trying a hand-held shot with a 5 second exposure, you will experience camera shake. If, on the other hand, you were shooting at a shutter speed of 1/90th Anti-Shake would give you the opportunity of about another 2 stops on your aperture (taking your shutter sped down to 1/45th, and still be in with a shout at a shake-free picture. It may just be that I have exceptionally shaky hands, but in my practice shots anti-shake has not been able to do much for shots at 1/30th of a second or slower. Handily, the viewfinder shows you whether you are suffering from camera shake and how much compensation anti-shake is making, so that provided youre not in a hurry to take your picture you can at least wait until your hand has steadied, giving you an even better chance at perfection. Of course, Anti-Shake can be switched on or off, which may be a good thing as I would imagine it goes some way towards draining the battery. All the usual exposure information is available through the view-finder as you would expect. The same information (and more) is also available from the LCD panel which will show you much the same as the original Dynax 7 including EV, effective ISO rating of the CCD, shutter speed, aperture, metering mode & focus area selection file format and an estimated number of pictures remaining on the memory card. The only thing that is missing from the old Dynax 7 display modes is the metered exposure levels for the honeycomb pattern, but as you can easily snap a shot, view it on the LCD and re-take it if its not to your liking, its not too much of a problem.
The LCD displays the multitude of configuration menus, all of which are easy to navigate and select from using the thumb-pad. The features and options are well documented in the excellent manual which is itself easy to use and compact enough to carry around with you for the first few weeks (although the binding isnt that good so dont abuse it too much). Data access is reasonably swift, for reading and deleting at any rate. The saving of images varies depending on the size/compression, but worst case (fine JPEG + RAW) takes about 10 seconds, with there being enough buffer memory to capture about 5 consecutive frames in multi-frame mode (at a rate of 3 Fps). The playback of stored images is very useful, with the LCD giving an excellent representation of colours and levels. The digital zoom is particularly useful for judging whether a shot was in-focus or not, and the delete button is far easier than taking 3 backups and having to wait until the whole roll has been processed.
The supplied software is very good for manipulating the stored images, and is essential if you want to work with RAW mode files. It provides an excellent way of making multiple copies of the original with varying exposure levels without any of the loss associated with JPEG or other compressed formats. The fact that RAW images are not compressed does mean that they are on the large side, at around 8MB each. When saved in JPEG + RAW this means that each picture takes about 10Mb of memory card, although you can still squeeze 80 onto a 1GB CF card, or 166 pictures using just extra-fine JPEG. Speaking of images size, one of my biggest disappointments with the 7D is the write speed when saving images. Even with a high-speed CompactFlasdh card, it writes at the painfully slow rate of 1Mb/sec, taking a never-ending 10 seconds to save a picture in RAW+JPG. The camera itself appears under Windows XP as a simple removable mass-storage device and images can be dragged/dropped as with pretty much any other digital camera.
A recent firmware upgrade (to version 1.10e) has been released recently. The upgrade process is simplicity itself, but I wont go into details here best to leave that to the instructions that come with the software. Suffice to say Id downloaded the update and upgraded my camera within the space of 5 minutes! One of the new features included in 1.10e is the highlighting of over/underexposed areas in image playback. This is an excellent improvement allowing very rapid determination of any areas that could be lacking detail and something that Ive admired on the digital Canons for a while now. The firmware also claims to have improved CompactFlash access times but Ive not seen any evidence of this my benchmark of RAW+JPG still takes between 9 11 seconds to save.
Some of the things it doesnt do include sound and video recording. This was an initial disappointment until I looked at my Fuji and thought back to how many times I had actually used those features. Probably less than 5 times in 3 years, so no great loss. The other important difference, and this is a good thing to my mind, is that you cant use it single-handed. The LCD will NOT show you the view through the lens until after youve taken the photo, so you HAVE to look through the viewfinder. I find this far better photographic discipline than the single-handed point and shoot nature of compact digital cameras, and it invariably leads to better photographs.
In summary, if you are have a bag full of Minolta kit already, what are you waiting for? This camera is what you need to break you free from the shackles of film (unless you like doing your own B&W developing). It offers all the flexibility of a high-end SLR, and a lot of the convenience of digital. If you are new to the market of SLR photography and have yet to buy into a camera system (lenses and all) then I think the Minolta offers an excellent platform to start on. And finally, if you are a die-hard Nikon/Canon user maybe you can get a trade in! ;-)
Digital cameras have arguably made a far greater impact than film cameras ever did, a quick look at the pages of Ciao reveals literally hundreds of digital models all vying for your attention and hard-earned. The majority are produced by manufacturers that are already well-established in the field of photography and all offer much the same in terms of functionality so how do you choose which is the best one for you?
I faced this challenge a couple of weeks back when we were out looking for a digital camera for LegendaryMrsDude. My old Fuji Finepix F601 was playing up and was long overdue a replacement, but what to replace it with? The criteria we chose and how the Konica Minolta G530 compared against the competition in each are described below, along with how we've found the camera in the last month of use.
Asking my wife is size is important isn't unusual... what surprised me slightly was that she said she'd prefer a smaller one than last time. With a baby one the way, she wanted a camera that she could carry around in a hand bag so that there was always a camera handy should the need arise. While there are smaller cameras out there, the G530 certainly cuts a fine figure. Barely bigger than a pack of 20 cigarettes and with no significant protrusions, lumps or bumps it's small enough to sit in the hand-bag. We even bought a padded LowePro case (because no case is supplied with the camera) and it's still smaller than the old Fuji F601 that we had previously. 4 out of 5 then for compactness.
Construction is also important, particularly with near-everyday use intended. The G530 scores well here. The case being entirely metal and there's even a metal cover that slides over the lens (which also acts as the on/off switch). While the intent is obviously never to drop it, I get the impression that it would survive a tumble or two. There's no rattling from anywhere on the camera; there are no untidy edges, gaps or holes that shouldn't be there. Buttons have a very positive feel and most make an almost imperceptible click as they are pressed to let you know something has happened. All in all, the camera exudes quality so 5 out of 5 for construction.
Speed of use has long been a bug-bear of digital cameras. Start-up times and shutter lag can all too often mean that you miss the moment, moving subjects end up out of focus, people end up with eyes closed because the blinked. The G530 does well here, with a start-up time of less than 1 second(!) Just slide back the lens cover and by the before you've found the shutter button with index finger, it's ready to go. Shutter-lag too is almost non-existent. The documentation claims the shutter lag is an staggering 0.03 seconds (!) and I've not yet been able take a test photo that illustrates the problems I've had with other digital cameras. So 5 out of 5 for speed of use.
Compatibility is reasonably important to us as well. When we bought the Fuji some 3-4 years ago there wasn't much to consider; CompactFlash and SmartMedia were the main choices for storage and USB1.1 was pretty much the only method of connectivity, using whatever cable the vendors decides to supply you with (although they were usually proprietary). Things have since moved on and there's an army of storage formats, some of which we had already invested in so rather than buy a camera that would require us to buy into ANOTHER storage solution, we wanted something that would work with either SD or CompactFlash for storage. CompactFlash still seems to be the mainstay for high-end digital cameras, but for compacts, SD offers the best capacity to physical size ratio so it's no surprise that the G530 takes SD cards, which are now available in sizes up to a massive 1Gb, although the G530 is supplied with a measly 16Mb card. As an added bonus, the G530 also supports Sony MemorySticks, allowing you to have a MemoryStick AND an SD card installed at the same time, giving a potentially colossal amount of storage! You can set a preference for which media is used first and, when it's full, images will be stored on the "secondary". The connection to the PC is via a mini-USB socket rather than the proprietary formats of some other manufacturers. Unfortunately the camera is only USB 1.1 rather than the faster USB2.0. Even so, the combination of storage formats and using a standard interface means 4.5 out of 5 for compatibility.
Given that LegendaryMrsDude is not particularly technical, ease of use was another big thing. Point-and-shoot had to be the default, although the ability to exercise a little more control wouldn't result in a marked-down score. The G530 does reasonably well in this area, although it could do better. There are 7 buttons and a thumb-pad on the back of the camera, and most seem to serve different functions depending on which mode the camera is in. Fortunately, they are well labelled and, once the camera has been set up for the first time, there are only 5 that need to be used on a regular basis; the shutter button, the pair for zooming in/out and the playback and delete buttons for sorting through your pictures before you've downloaded them to your PC. Setup of the camera is reasonably intuitive, the menus are clear and navigation fairly straight-forward using the thumb-pad. A range of programmed subject modes comes as standard, giving all the usual portrait, scenery, night-time and sport, along with the amazingly handy "snap-shot" and the unusual "angel" modes. These last two are likely to be the most often used, snapshot being ideal for point-and-shoot operation while Angel gives softer, warmer, more flattering skin tones but is otherwise the same as "portrait". On the ease of use front then it scores a 3 out of 5, which would have been lower still if it weren't for the "Snap-shot" mode.
Regardless of how good a camera is technically, it's no use if the pictures it produces are rubbish. Previous exploits with digital cameras have revealed all manner of inconsistencies, from picky auto-focus to poor light metering, exposure and dubious white-balance adjustment. Starting with the auto-focus, half-pressing the shutter button will set the camera focusing. It's remarkably quick to focus, the literature states times of 0.25 seconds and while it feels slightly longer than this, even double the quoted time would still only be half a second! Focus-lock is indicated by a constant green LED by the eye-piece; a flashing green LED meaning that no focus lock was achieved so if you do press the shutter button, your picture may be slightly out of focus. On the whole, the AF deals well with challenging scenes, high-contrast and reflections don't really cause any problems and moving subjects are handled surprisingly well for a compact camera. Earning the G530 5 out of 5 for focusing.
The focusing is complemented by the exposure and white balance which are similarly well handled. It has so far proved impossible to take a picture than has been exposed so badly as to be unrecoverable during editing and the actual number of pictures that have needed their "levels tweaking" have been few and far between. Of all the program modes, Angel is the one that plays with these settings the most, adjusting white balance and exposure to ensure that skin tones are more flattering than they would be under normal conditions. The effect is subtle and could easily be achieved on the PC, but it's handy to have it done consistently in-camera (if you like that sort of thing). So a 4 out of 5 for exposure.
And that's pretty much the camera in a nut-shell. Costing a tidy £200 (shop around and I am sure you'll find it cheaper), it's got a nice small screen with good colour reproduction that remains visible in sunlight. With 5 Mega-Pixel resolution the image quality is great and will happily enlarge to 10x8. The various compression modes allow for image sizes ranging between 3Mb and 500K with the biggest factor being artefacting with the higher compression levels. The in-built flash is good for fill-in at close range but won't reach much beyond 15 - 20 feet. The battery is proprietary (NP-600) Li-Ion that will last for an estimated 185 pictures after which you will need to take it out of the camera and put it in the supplied mains-charger for recharging. As well as still pictures, you can also record movies (AVI) and audio clips (WAV), with the maximum length being determined by the amount of storage you have left, thanks to the clunky user interface switching between modes is a bit of a chore. Of course, the camera can be used un full-manual mode as well, with control over every aspect being possible but the limited buttons mean that I doubt anyone will ever use it in this way as you'd be forever hunting through menus in search of the setting you wanted to change.
All things considered then, this is a fine piece of kit. It's well engineered, packed with features and produces excellent pictures. It's let down slightly by the ease of use. Once set up, it's a dream, but getting there, or changing it afterwards, can be a bit of a nightmare. The lack of an intuitive control system is the only problem this camera has, in every other regard it's probably the best digital compact I've ever used.
So what's the verdict? On the assumption that you are buying, as we did, a camera to use as a point-and-shoot then it's got to be 5 stars. Once it's set up it simply takes great photos. The start-up and response times are amazing, probably the quickest on the market and the output is fantastic.
When my old Netgear wireless router broke down (for the fourth time) at the beginning of December I decided that enough was enough.
A trip to PC world saw me return with one of these puppies (and £60 lighter in the pocket). 30 minutes after getting home saw my Internet access and wireless network reinstated. Yup, 30 minutes was really all it took, and that included unwrapping it, fiddling round with the power supply & cables as well as some basic configuration. This was helped along by the excellent quick-start guide on a large, fold-out sheet with it's clearly numbered and documented steps.
At about the size of a large-format paperback, it's middle of the road in terms of size. Aesthetically it's not going to win any prizes, but it does the job. There are screw-holes on the base to allow for wall-mounting should you desire. An array of LEDs on the front panel flash to show you that things are happening, 4 RJ-45 ports on the back allow you to plug up to 4 PCs into it and there's a 5th Ethernet port for connecting to your Internet connection to it. All are clearly labelled so you shouldn't have any problems. All 4 of the PC ports will automatically detect if they are being used to uplink to another switch/hub which is handy and saves fiddling round with buttons. Also on the back are the two stubby WiFi aerials that don't look half big enough for the job but seem to work. The power supply is a separate brick with a generous lead to both the plug and the device, giving good range when it comes to positioning the box, something that is important for a Wireless access point.
From a hardware point of view, it supports all of the major standards. The 4 computer network ports are capable of regular Ethernet (10Mb/sec) and FastEthernet (100Mb/sec) switched and give good performance between attached computers. On the wireless side, it supports both the older (and slower, 11Mb/sec at best) 802.11b and the newer (and faster 54Mb/sec at best) 802.11g. They are supported side-by-side out of the box so it is perfectly possible to have a mixture of devices, but as they both operate at the same frequency you will find that 'g' devices will be held back if there are 'b' devices using it as well. There is also support for the two wireless security mechanisms; WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is available at 64 and 128bits but the configuration is messy and WEP has been proven flawed. You'll only use this if you are running older WiFi equipment that doesn't support the newer WPA (WiFi Protected Access), which is far easier to configure and more secure.
As an aside, the main benefits of securing your Wireless access are around bandwidth "theft", bearing in mind that typically an Access point in the home will be good for your neighbours both sides and across the road, depending on the size of your garden! It's also useful if you have more than one PC on your network and you share files between them as it would save anyone coming along and taking copies of your shared files. That said, it may not be such a problem with the Belkin as I have had disappointing results with the WiFi coverage from my Belkin. I live in a modern, stud-wall constructed house and my old (802.11b) Netgear used to give me good coverage throughout. The Belkin struggles to provide coverage from front to back so careful placement becomes more important.
Configuration of the device is all through a web-interface, so there's no driver or configuration software installation required. Password protection is available and I'd recommend anyone set up a password, especially if you're not going to secure your Wireless access with either WEP or WPA.
The other major security feature of the Belkin box is it's built in firewall. This effectively protects you from Internet-based hacking attempts and while it will not be able to guarantee 100% protection it is certainly a lot better than nothing. It's safe by default and the only reasons to change its configuration are if you want to do something slightly tricky, like host Internet multi-player games, or your own web-server or similar. This is where you will run into the first limitation of the Belkin. Unlike some of the more expensive firewalls out there, the Belkin only allows one incoming connection type to each internal PC, so it's not possible to set up your PC to hose Wolfenstein and Medal of Honour games at the same time, it's either one or the other. Thankfully Belkin have realised the limitation and tried to make it as easy as possible to change this aspect of the configuration. Other aspects of the firewall are slightly less intuitive to configure and are probably best left alone unless you are experiencing a particular problem. Fortunately the on-line help is pretty solid across all the configuration areas.
Some of the other more useful features are a semi-automatic firmware update check, a backup function for the router configuration and a Parental Control option, although the latter is subscription based rather than user-defined keywords. It also has the ability to support Universal Plug n Play (UPNP) should you need it, although this is off by default. Finally, there is good support for VPNs so all you corporate users that like to work from home (me included) are well catered for.
It all sounds pretty good so far and, for the money I suppose it is. But I've been spoiled by my Netgear so some of the limitations that bug me are:
- There's no support for Dynamic DNS, where the router automatically registers it's dynamically assigned IP address with a constant domain-name for easy reference anywhere on the Internet. So I have to do it manually once a month. Not a big deal, but mildly annoying.
- The firewall isn't as flexible in it's configuration as I'd previously been used to, either allowing me one service through the firewall per internal PC or everything to the PC with no firewall protection at all. There are workarounds to this (assigning multiple IP addresses to internal PCs is one way) but it's messy. Similarly, while scheduling of firewall access is supported it's also a bit fiddly to implement should you want to do so.
- The subscription-based parental control drives revenue, what's wrong with user administrated keyword filtering? It can't be that hard to implement.
Ultimately, you get what you pay for. My old Netgear was £150; this was £60 (now £50 in the PC World Sale). For 1/3rd the price, you certainly get more than 1/3rd the functionality so despite its shortcomings, I am pleased to say that it was a worthwhile purchase. If you need a basic home router/WiFi access point, it's just the ticket. If you want something more complex and you have the technical knowledge to understand what you need, the Belkin is flexible enough that you will probably find a way of making it do what you want although it may be a bit long-winded and some things may remain a manual task. In terms of its competition, I don't think there's anything out there to touch it on price. Pay £20 - 30 more and you will get most of the features that are "missing", but how much you really need them is up to you. So it's 4.5 stars for the Belkin, let down by some of its software features but rounded up to 5 for sheer value.
[ Originally posted on www.ciao.co.uk by me at the end of 2004 ]
With the exception of a particularly glorious fortnight in Cumbria in early May this year, just about every trip to the hills I have made in the last umpteen years has seen me get wet. Usually to the degree of Very. Which is why a decent pair of waterproof over-trousers is such a necessity in the UK. The good thing about buying a pair of over-trousers is that it's just about the only time that you can try on a pair of trousers in the middle of the store, surrounded by onlookers without risking expulsion or arrest. Ok, maybe that's not a major selling point, but it does have a certain novelty value. And trying on over-trousers is an important thing, not to be underestimated. The problem is, you see, that by their very nature, over-trousers are generally worn over other garments. And as such, they won't always fit as well as the size may indicate. The situation is worsened by the various different cuts that manufacturers use. Take these Lowe Alpine Storm Force jobbies as an example. They claim an athletic/sporty cut for fast moving activity on the hills. What this actually means, in real terms, is that they are reasonably close fitting. So if you're planning to wear them over a pair of shorts you should be just fine but should you, heaven forbid, want to wear them over a pair of jeans then you could find them getting very uncomfortable very quickly. When I tried them on in the shop, I did so over a trusty pair of walking trousers of the variety that zip off just above the knee to turn into a pair of shorts. I tried them on both with and without lower legs and found them to be equally well fitting in both configurations. I also left on my walking boots, for it is equally important that you shouldn't need to remove your footwear if you are trying to mimimise your exposure to the elements in the event of a sudden downpour. I am pleased to report that they fared equally well going on (and off) over a chunky pair of 3-season walking
boots of the gore-tex lined persuasion. The trousers themselves are made of the now-defunct (and sorely missed) Triplepoint waterproof fabric. This is a lightweight, ripstop nylon based fabric that offers excellent "waterproofness" and moderate breathability. They come with an elasticated waist, complete with drawcord and a mesh pocket to the rear. The seams are taped for enhanced proofing against the elements and there are good-sized zips from the elasticated ankle-cuffs up to the knees, facilitating the donning/removal of said garment over chunky boots. They fold up nice and small and be compressed down to a size that is of almost no consequence in a day-sack. Certainly they find a place in my bag on all but the most sunny of days. In everyday use they have proved time and again to be a highly effective piece of clothing. As already mentioned, they can be put on over boots and trousers in under a minute, and once in place provide excellent protection against the elements. Rain beads off them in excellent style and they are equally as impermeable to the wind, thus providing welcome relief from wind-chill at higher altitudes, especially in the wet. The cut of the trousers means that, unlike a number of th competition, there is minimal chafing between the legs and no feeling of bagginess (if such a word exists). The elasticated ankle-cuffs hold the neck of my boots well and stop water from getting in to my feet. The storm-flaps over the zips are moderately effective too. The elasticated, draw-corded waist is comfortable enough and does a grand job of holding them up, although it's more a token gesture as the fit is close enough that they are unlikely to fall down anyway. Team them up with a decent pair of gloves, gaiters and a sturdy waterproof jacket and you will be able to achieve a smug satisfaction in the face of the various trials and tribulations thrown at you by the elements while enjoying the countryside. A
s with all waterproof fabrics, they do start to deteriorate over time but this can be quickly remedied by washing them in Graingers extreme waterproofing solution and giving them a quick tumble-dry to reactivate the waterproof chemicals. I paid £55 for my pair, which I consider to be more than reasonable for the use I've had out of them. Alas they have seen better days and I fear that I will only be able to revive them a few more times before they get consigned to the great gear-graveyard in the sky (also known as the loft). When this happens, they will be sorely missed as the Triplepoint fabric from which they are constructed is no longer used, leaving gore-tex as the only option. Unfortunately, Gore-tex has the disadvantage of being a multi-layerd fabric whereas triplepoint was a single-layer with a special coating and so was significantly more flexible. So I shall soldier on with my trusty Storm Force pants, revitalising and resuccitating them until the can't go on any more. At which point I may have to go "trousering free"... (to the theme tune from the Wombles)
I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be writing a review of a microwave, but after a year of daily use I think it's earned some words of praise. When I moved in with LegendaryMsDude (as she was then) several years ago, we had a beaten up old microwave. It did the job, at 450W, eventually cooking stuff. It was a lovely tobacco-stained off-white even thought neither of us smoked. After a number of years of service, it was a bit worse for wear. The inside had a perpetual stink of re-heated curry that tainted everything we cooked in it. The outside was indellibly stained with something and above all, it was MASSIVE. So when we moved house, from an old converted Victorian flat to a modern 3-bed house, and found ourselves with a significantly smaller kitchen it seemed the ideal opportunity/excuse (delete as appropriate) to upgrade the microwave. I took it upon myself to perform this task, being the one who does 95% of the cooking (or 100% if you don't count boiling the kettle as cooking). On reflection, this may not have been the best approach to take, what with me being a confirmed sucker for "extra features". A wander around the local Currys superstore one Saturday saw me leaving with a brand new Panasonic Microwave of the type this review is about. Boasting a neat and tidy form that fitted into our new, compact kitchen and clad in trendy stainless steel, this looked like the puppy for us. With a wipe-clean control panel and no obvious dials/switches/knobs for food to congeal in/around, it seemed easy enough to keep clean. The inside being a similar material to the outside, it should resist the buildup of the same smells/tasts that befell out last one too. Throw in a whopping 1000W, category "E" power rating, a conventional, fan-assisted convection oven and a doozie of a grill and you've got one compelling story for someone that likes "extra features". So why this particular oven?
Especially when it cost the best part of £200, when there are others at much lower prices that do much the same job? First off is the aforementioned size. The whizzy Panasonic "Inverter" technology means that the power-supply needed for a 1000W microwave is significantly smaller than the competition, which means they can make the oven smaller, which means that it fits in our limited space with greater ease. Plus the stainless steel finish matched the already installed appliances. It's not just about the appearance though. One of the problems with our old oven was the weedy power-rating. As technology has progressed, the older power-bands have dropped off the cooking instructions for most microwaveable foods, so we weren't always sure how long things should be cooked for. Going for a 1000W oven meant that we could safely take the times for an 850W oven without risk of undercooking (I've had food-poisoning more times than I care to remeber so am a bit fussy about that sort of thing these days). Then there's the conventional oven. Because the oven istelf is only 27litres big, it heats up a lot quicker and takes significantly less energy to do so. So it's much cheaper to run than the big, under-the hob oven. Especially when there's only 2 to cook for. The grill makes it even better value as this too is far more effective than the under-the-hob arrangement, reaching cooking temperature in a matter of seconds rather than minutes. The one thing you do have to watch out for is leaving stuff (especially plastic stuff!) on top of the oven. It gets VERY hot and stuff WILL melt. All over your oven and (worst-case) through the ventilation grill on the top of it and into the internal workings, which could get very nasty. At this point I should probably point out (although most of you will have figured it out already) that the outside of the oven can get hot to the touch, so you should be sure to have it out of the reach of
toddl ers. Roll all of these into the combi-oven that the Panasonic is and you find yourself able to do some pretty neat things. Microwave assistance to the convection oven, with a burst of the grill to put a crispy top on what you're cooking makes it extremely versatile. This versatility is increased by a number of programmed settings for all manner of foodstuffs, ranging from frozen pizza to cold chinese takeaway. Just select the appropriate setting by pressing the right button (there's a different button for each of the major categories), then enter the weight of the food you're cooking and press the start button (once you've put the food in the oven!) and you're away. What could be simpler?!?!? So we've been living with this hunk of brushed stainless steel for the last 12 months, how have we found it? In all truth, it's been great. Easily the most frequently used appliance in the kitchen (or at least on a par with the washing machine). It' most commonly used, surprisingly enough, on the convection setting as I find traditionally baked foods to be more tasty than their microwave-blasted equivalent. The combination of oven and grill for crisping up things like pie crusts etc is great, giving it a real edge over regular ovens or microwaves. The microwave itself is also fine, with defrosting working particularly well. The chaos defrost mode varies the power during the defrost cycle, giving a much more even defrost and I'm convinced that it's quicker because of it too. The combi-feature is neat, making short work of a Pizza Express from Sainsburys (taking about 8minutes to cook just like they do in the restaurant). The microwave does the majority of the cooking, while the grill comes on at varying power throughout to ensurte that the cheese melts and the toppings are crisped to perfection during the process. It's also pretty good at making bread, the convection oven providing the m <
br>ajority of the heat with the grill turning up towards the end to give a wonderful, golden crust. The fact that it is a combi-oven also means that you can use metal dishes etc when microwaving, which while not a huge advantage, does make things a little easier. We have had a couple of problems and LegendaryMrsDude is still a bit wary of it... the default mode of operation, if you just enter a time and press "start", is to microwave on full power. Mrs Dude wasn't aware of this and thought that it would default to the convection oven. So when she attempted to cook a Frey Bentos pie for 35 minutes and it defaulted to full Microwave power (rather than 230deg in the convetional oven), she was a little surprised, disappointed and hungry. The fire alarm was none too pleased either. And as for the pie, I was worried that it could have been the start of the China Syndrome!!! I considered sending it off to the Royal Geological Survey for analysis, so convinced was I that it was a lump of Basalt. Another minor niggle is that when you press the 10 minute button to set a time, it untruthfully displays "10h" rather than "10m" which has caused some panic before now as well. My final gripe is about the insides. Despite the internal walls being made of "stainless" steel, don't be fooled. they WILL stain. Especially if you use the convection oven a lot. This is mainly because on the convection setting, the inside of the oven is simply too hot to clean while any mess may still be in a "cleanable" state. By the time it's cooled down, it's too late and whatever was there will have turned into a monomolecular layer with an impossibly tenacious affinity for the inside of the oven. No amount of scrubbing will make any significant impression and I haven't dared use any caustic oven cleaners for fear of damaging some of the more delicate components. That said, it hasn't tainted the taste of anythin
g cooked in the oven and, unless the door's wide open, you can't see it so it's not exactly a problem. So has it been worth the extra moey over a cheap £40 microwave? Easily, yes. The amount of use we've made of the grill and convection features have meant that it's been worth every penny and it has probably helped us realise some of the £500 (!!!!) overpayment on the electricity bill that I've just had refunded. If you are looking for a new combi microwave/gril/oven then I can heartily recommend this one as a good choice.
I'm not normally one to join in the frantic scramble to upgrade my mobile to the latest/greates/slightly different coloured model. In fact until last weekend, I obtained a smug satisfaction from knowing that I'd had the same phone for over 2 years!!! Which is not to say that I am a particularly smug individual. Far from it, in fact. It's just that the number of phones I had managed to break before upgrading to my trusty, rubber-clad Nokia 5210 was reaching epic proportions and so my smugness was more related to the fact that I'd finally found a phone that was effectively unbreakable. The majority of phone-deaths I had experienced were usually related to some outdoors-type activity or other. Either they were dropped, squashed, soaked of frozen but one way or another, it seemed that they were destined to certain doom. So when Nokia introduced the ruggedised 5210 it seemed as though they had been carefully logging every reason I porvided along with my insurance claims with every returned phone... "it got damp on a particularly wet and windy ascent of Snowdon", "it must have got squashed at the bottom of my rucksack", "my thermos leaked", "came out of my backpack while I was riding my bike". The 5210 was the answer to my mobile prayers. It was small, light, relatively waterproof and tough as old boots. So I had no need to upgrade. Indeed, until the arrival of the new 5140, there wasn't really an alternative. So why did I upgrade if I was so well-suited to my trusty old 5210? Being a self-confessed gadget freak, it had been a real test of willpower for me to go without a latest gadget. But the poor performance (and lack of availability on my network) of the 5140s predecessor(s) had effectively left me out in the cold. I didn't want to upgrade to another phone that would break on it's first trip to the outdoors, so I sat tight. It was only a chance visit to the Nokia shop at a local shop
ping mall, that resulted in the discovery of the 5140, the replacement for the doomed 5110. A brief chat with the salesperson indicated that this could well be the phone for me... it had the same ruggedised, rubberised shell that would take the knocks. It had improved protection against moisture (the phone itself is now inside s sealed unit, inside the rubber shell. Best of all it had HUGE gadget potential. On top of the physical features that first attracted me (I've always been shallow), the 5140 also boasts a huge array of features including, but not limited to, tri-band support, an integrated camera, FM radio, Digital Compass, Thermometer and "Push-to-Talk" capability (dependant on network provider support). These add up to make it a fairly compelling package for an outdoor enthusiast anyway, but when the salesperson informed me that Nokia were releasing a GPS-enabled shell, I was sold. Imagine a phone that could tell you exactly how to get somewhere, how fast you were travelling, how far you had to go etc. It would certainly be one less piece of kit to carry about on the hills and cuold come in dead handy for everyday use as well (should you be prone to getting lost at the best of times). There are a whole load of applications that could be opened up, from relaying exact coordinates to mountain rescue teams, to finding the neares chinese restaurant AND getting turn-by-turn directions to it. But enough of the gadget-fuelled waffling... what's the phone actually like to use? In terms of it's overall appearance, it looks vaguely familiar to most other "standard" Nokia handsets and the heritage to the 5210 is obvious, with the only major change being the inclusion of a 4-way joypad type thingumabob. This new way of driving the menus confused me at first, being used to just an up/down/OK/Cancel way of working, it was odd to have to use the up/down/left/right/select/ok/cancel series of cli
cks. But I'll get used to it. While we're on the subject of the keypad, it's slightly different from the 5210 in that the keypad is a separate part of the shell, and a lot more rubbery with it. While this may be better for replacements, enhancements etc I do find it makes writing text messages a bit trickier as it's not always guaranteed that a key-press will register. Aside from that, it's the usual Nokia User interface, with standard menus for ringtones, phone settings, messages etc, etc. The screen is reasonably large although I do find it hard to read in bright sunlight and maybe not as colourful as it could be. The supplied selection of ringtones and pictures is enough to be getting on with (I only want my phone to ring anyway!) but gone are the endless hours wasted on the train playing Snake or Bantumi. Only 1 game is supplied (adventure race) and it's pretty lame but I am lead to believe that downloads are available if you so desire. In terms of applications the usual suspects are present, calculator, stopwatch, countdown timer and thermometer. There is also a soundmeter which, while interesting, I have yet to find a use for. There is a personal fitness trainer included, but I've not used it yet and so will refrain from comment aside from saying that if you are really into fitness training, you will probably already own countless heart-rate monitors and the like, which will do a much better job than this. The trusty old calendar of yore has been dragged into the 21st century and is much more functional and FINALLY supports synchronisation with Outlook etc. a feature that was sorely missed on the 5210. Calendar, Alarms, Notes and To-Do lists and a wallet are all provided to assist in organising your everyday life. In terms of other software, Nokia seem to have thought it through pretty well. The Compass claims a 1-degree accuracy which is better than a lot of other electronic compasses, and there is even a
bubble-level on the case to ensure that you're holding the phone level for an accurate reading. The software allows for the setting of a direction, allowing you to follow a bearing and it even supports automated correction for declination (you need to enter the amount, but from then on it will read true). And then there's the LED flashlight to help you find the way should you end up using it in the dark. Most of the uther features are pretty standard. The Camera supports three resolutions, high, normal and basic, with the output from high-quality mode being most acceotable! It also has three modes to enhance the way the camera operates, Standard, Portrait and Night modes as well as the abilityy to take a rapid sequence of pictures. These have, so far, produced some of the best photos I have seen from a camera phone. A 10-second timer is also available, but requires careful propping up of the phone. As well as still images the phone can also capture video (in H.263 format) at a respectable frame rate and including sound! Video compression means that storage is about 10k per second of video. The voice record function also works well and can be trigered by a handy little button on the top tight hand-side of the phone, with space for up to 10 messages, each of up to 3 minutes in length. The supplied hands-free kit is excellent, it comes as a stereo "over-the ear" type thing, with a rubberised contorl pad that incldes Push-To-Talk (PTT) controls. It's extremely comfortable and gives excelent performance when listening to the radio or on a phonecall. Not that you need the hands-free kit all the time as the phone includes a speakerphone option which also works extremely well. There is also a rather nifty "handle" for the phone that effectively straps it to the palm of your hand, meaning you don't actually have to hold on to it. I'm not convinced of the value that ths adds, but it is a novelty nothe the less. The ch
arger is one that supports voltages between 100 - 240V which is good to see, I've been caught out abroad before now when I've found that my charger only works on 240V... not that you may need the charger that often. Nokia boast a respectable 300hours standby time but this will be eaten into the more you make use of the various features (the digital compass and camera being the two biggest culprits). And that's pretty much all the main features in a nutshell... full details can be found on Nokia's website at http://www.nokia.co.uk/nokia/0,,53413,00.html I've only had it for two weeks but have come to rems with it fairly quickly and haven't had any problems with it <touch wood>. If I were asked for one gripe, it's that the snap-on cases are a lot more fiddly to take off than they used to be, but this is hardly a problem and will hopefully add to the durability of the phone. It will be taken to the Lake District in a couple of weeks for a week in the hills, after which I will know if it really is a worthy successor to the trusty old 5210. Look out for updates if you are interested and thanks for reading.
When my OEM-fit Bridgeston Potenza RE040s finally made it down to the tread-wear indicator I had them replaced with a pair of the new Michelin Pilot Exaltos. In a 205-45/17 fitting these are fairly intimidating beasties and at £140 per tyre, so they should be! None of your swoopy curves and slashes that look all sexy. Oh no. These purposeful hunks of rubber have three MASSIVE channels running around the tyre combined with some fairly agressive lugs (sipes?) around the outside edge. The mention of an outside edge indicates that these are directional tyres but maybe not in the strictest sense. The Bridgestones had an arrow indicating the direction of rotation the tyres should be mounted in, which ultimately meant that you could only swap the tyres along the same side of the car. The Pilot Exaltos, on the other hand, have an outside and an inside edge. Obviously you will always fit the outside edge to the outside of the wheel, so it is possible (in theory at least), to swap the left and right fronts without problem. This asymmetrical tread design has some rather neat features. First off, the three central channels provide a HUGE capacity for evacuating water. Performance in the wet has so far (2,000 miles) been exceptional. They seem to cut through surface water and the compund is surprisingly grippy when wet, which is a bonus. Certainly in the torrential conditions we've experienced recently they have proven sure-footed. Better perhaps than the Bridgestones, but my memory may have been tainted by the minimal amount of tread I had been driving with towards the end. The other feature of the asymmetrical pattern is the aforementioned "outside" edge. this is an agressive pattern of lugs that is supposed to move closer together when cornering, allegedly giving a constant sized "contact patch" and maximum grip around bends. With the sole purpose of testing the tyre for fellow DooYooers, I've been putting this aspect t
o the test around some sharp bends in warm weather and an pleased to report that they do actually work rather well when cornering at speed. All this is well and good, but have I noticed any real difference between the Michelins & the Bridgestones? Yes is the simple answer. In a straight line, from a standing start the Michelins offer considerably less grip. It may be that the water-shedding design sees less rubber on contact with the ground. It could be that the silicone-rich compound that's so good in the wet is just less sticky in the dry. Whatever the cause, the bottom line is that my Civic Type-R looses traction far more easily with the Michelins than it ever did with the Bridgestones. And it's not your squealing, burning rubber type of wheelspin caused by youthful show-boating, it's the soundless scrabbling for traction as wheels spin helplessly and apparently without friction. Related to this is the tyres amazing ability to stay cool under stressful conditions. Even after a frantic, wheel-spinning scramble away from a junction the tyres either won't get hot or won't retain the heat, which could well be partly to blame for the lack of grip. Whereas the Bridgestones were so grippy they used to pick up paint from the road and get almost uncomfortably hot to the touch, the Michelins just pick up dust and barely get warm enough to resemble a badly made cup of tea. On a cold, damp morning they are bordering on troublesome to drive, with wheelspin being possible all the way up to 3rd gear. I've not had to put their stopping power to test for real but have tried a few emergency stops so that I could know what to expect and each time I am pleased to say that they have behaved well, with the ABS coming in to play only once. So that's the general stickiness/wet performance stuff out of the way, is there anything else you might want to know? In terms of noise, they're slightly quieter than the Bridgestones producing just
a dull roar as opposed to a deafening one. They are also a lot better behaved in a straight line across bumpy/rutted roads. Whereas the Bridgestones used to wander where the road wanted them to go, the Michelins stay pointed in the direction I want them to. General coenering is excellent, steering response is easily on a par with the Brodgestones. Kerb-protection is also pretty good for a low-profile tyre, but I still wouldn't want to bump up a kerb higher than 2 inches and certainly at no more than a crawl. Overall then, it's a fine tyre for a middle of the road family hatchback. Stick them on your Focus (assuming it's not a Focus RS) and you should be more than happy. They perform well in the wet and corner with ease. For a car with a little more "oomph" they are not ideal. For all their excellent design and high-tech rubber compound, they are somewhat lacking in the plain, old-fashioned grip department. Consequently it's hard to give a single rating so I've split it into two: If you have a "regular" family car, consider the score to be 5 stars. If you have a performance car, consider the score to be 2 stars. The average is somewhere between to I've given an overall of 3. If only I could have another set of Bridgestones for the summer and these for the winter, maybe I'd be alright...
One of the great things about getting a new car is the fact that they generally come with tyres that you wouldn't ever dream of paying for out of your own pocket. Such was the case with my Honda Civic Type-R. It arrived with a brand-new set of Bridgestone Potenza RE040s with a suggested retail price of somewhere around £150 per tyre! At 205/45/R17, they're pretty big lumps of rubber. They've done their job well enough and, after just 15 months of driving they've made it down to the wear indicators. In that time I've driven them on just about every surface you could imagine (with the unfortunate exception of a race track!) and the comments you find here are my experiences of living with the RE040s over the last 18,000 miles. I'll start off with apeparances... the asymmetric tread pattern isn't particularly inspiring, lots of straight cuts and a reasonable central groove give a purposeful appearance without the swoopy tread of most other "sports" tyres. What the pattern does hint at is the fact that they are designed for dry, warm, grippy roads being driven at high speeds. Lots of rubber in contact with the road with only a token gesture at water displacement. In this case, appearances are not deceptive. On a hot summers day driving is a pleasure. Warming up very quickly, '040s are ultra grippy on pretty much any dry, solid road surface (the warmer the better). Roundabouts become a thing of the past, with the grip not even coming close to breaking at some unexpectedly high speeds. Braking is equally well-served, the ABS has never been required on a dry day, despite several attempts to wake it up! For a mediterranean summer or a blast around a race track, you would be hard-pushed to find a finer tyre. Luckily for me, the last year has seen plenty of hot weather and so I've had a fine time driving. Driving in the wet is another story. Not an entirely bad story, but certainly not as positive. Whe
n cold and/or damp it takes an age for the 040s to warm up. Wheelspin is frequent and ABS can come into play a lot more frequently than expected. It took me a while to get used to the Jekyll & Hyde nature going from hot to wet. That's not to say that they are undrivable in the wet, just that they are nowhere near as surefooted as in the dry. In VERY wet conditions (and there have been a few) I've always felt more than a little anxious, particularly of aqua-planing. It's never happened, but I put that down to an ultra-conservative approach induced by the slightly "floaty" feel that takes the wheel in very wet weather. The last weather condition you might want to know about is snow. We've not had too much of it so it's hard to comment, but based on my experience in rain I would not recommend them for snow. The tread patterns are all about rubber on the road rather than cutting through the snow, so I would expect the grip to break very easily when there's snow on the ground. In a more general sense, the low-profile gives an extremely positive feel around corners, with no hint of splashing/shearing. The trad pattern works well here, giving an excellent footprint around bends even at high speed. General steering is very responsive, although a minor complaint exists around the tramlines that HGVs leave on roads like the A1. Whether it's the tyres or the steering (or a combination of the two) I find that my Civic is tossed around like a sailboat in a storm when I stumble across rutting. It's worth pointing out that this happens at any speed, from urban to motorway. They are also very noisy. In fact it would be safe to say that they are the noisiest tyres I have ever owned. A dull rumble is present at all speeds, but at 80mph on a concrete road the stereo struggles to overcome the road-noise and conversation, while not at shouting point, takes extra effort. In closing then, the RE040s are a fine tyre for
their intended purpose i.e. aggressive driving in a warm, dry environment. In recent UK summers they have been a joy to drive. In recent UK winters they have been tolerable. They've worn down fairly quickly, but the owners manual warns of even shorter replacement times if the car is driven "enthusiastically". This must be down to the very soft compund used to provide the copious amounts of grip. So now they need replacing, will I go for the same spec? Interestingly, even Bridgestones own tyre-selector doesn't pick them... Bridgestone now recommends the nre RE050s (could it be because they cost more or am I being too cynical). Anyhow, I've got to replace them and have been told that the only tyres I can have are Michelins. The only ones I can find that anyone carries in my size are the Pilot Exaltos so expect to see an opinion on those in 12 months time (or less, depending how many miles I clock up). Safe driving.
There comes a time in the life of every committed gadget fan when they start to ponder their next purchase. These are usually precipitated by meeting soneone who happens to own/use a really neat piece of kit, one that you wouldn't mind having for yourself... and so the process begins. In this particular case, I was getting a lift with a colleague and he had an iPAQ based sattelie navigaton system which, I have to say, left me gobsmacked with it's turn-by-turn directions. Suffice to say, 45 minutes and a flawlessly guided journey across London later, I was convinced that such a device would be mine. Saving promptly began and some time later an order was placed with www.discountgps.co.uk for an HP iPAQ 5550. As others have mentioned, the 5550 is the current top-of-the-range model Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) from HP. It runs the most current version the windows PocketPC operating system (2003 premium) and comes complete with a CD full of goodies, including an upgrade to your standard Microsoft Outlook mail client that delivers richer functionality that the Outlook Express. The list of features is impressive indeed. When lined up with the "lesser" iPAQs in the range there doesn't appear to be a model that can stand up to it. I won't go into the full specifications (they can be found at http://h10010.www1.hp.com/wwpc/uk/en/sm/WF06a/21675-21679-21679-21679-21679-117689 9.html if you are interested), but will focus on what differentiates it from the rest. The first thing on the list is the inclusion of a fingerprint scanner. Replacing the need for passwords this is probably the single neates bit of kit on the iPAQ itself. Spend a couple of minutes "enrolling" each of your index fingers and then, instead of having to remember another password to unlock your PDA, you simply swipe either one of the enrolled fingers. Simple and brilliant, with the only worry being that too many incorrect swipes and you end up formatting
the iPAQ). The exact number of attempts is user specified and you always have the option of using a password as well/instead. Next on the list of features is the screen. THe literature informs you that the screen is the biggest in the range, which is true but don't be fooled, it's only bigger by about 1-2mm in either dimnension. Even so, the screen is excellent, bright and contrasty and stands up for itself well even in sunny conditions. Another neat feature (that saves the battery too) is variable screen brightness levels. A light sensor on the face of the device detects the ambient light levels and adjusts the screen brighness to the minimum needed. What looks like a gimmick at first actually works well and goes some way to extending the battery life. Next up is the amount of memory. At 128Mb, the 5550 is miles ahead of the competition when it comes to the amount of memory available. This is an interesting point as the iPAQs work on a principle known as "Execute In Place" (XIP), so programmes are run in the same type of memory that they are installed in, negating the need for hard-disk and memory as in a conventional desktop computer. Having 128Mb of storage space means that not only can you install more applications, you can also have more applications running at the same time. 128Mb is actually so much memory that I gave up trying to fill it either from stored or running programmes. With the ability to add SD memry cards of up to 512Mb, storage on the 5550 will never be a problem. The connectivity provided by the 5550 is also impressive. Boasting both BlueTooth and 802.11b wireless access it is possible to connect to almost anything. The wirless is well integrated and simple to set up, in fact it will alert you whenever you come into range of a new wireless access point. Provided you have all the relevant details you can be up and surfing within seconds. This includes web access and basic email from a standard
POP3/IMAP account (as provided by most ISPs). Bluetooth is just as good, providing a multitude of modes, including Personal Area Networking, wireless serial, media gateway and many, many more. I only ever used the PAn and ActiveSync functions. Speaking of ActiveSync, it's probably best to mention it at this stage. ActiveSync is the application that is used to install apps and synchronize mail between a host desktop and the iPAQ itself. It works well, allowing for synchronization between the iPAQ and up to two other machines (although only one host is allowed to sync mail information). It works well for syncing up notes and calendar appointments between home and the office. The installation of apps onto the iPAQ is easy-peasy thanks to ActiveSYnc. Just run the installer on the host PC with the iPAQ connected (either by BlueTooth, USB ore Serial) and ActiveSync will copy it across to the iPAQ and you are ready to go in no time. So that's pretty much the pros detailed, surely there are some down-sides? Unfortunately they answer is a resounding yes and, in my case at least, they were so bad that I ended up sending my iPAQ back and trading down to the smaller (and sleeker) 4150. While there were only two real issues, they were enough to render the device impractical... Frequent crashes/reboots/formats. From time to time my 5550 would crash, requiring a soft reboot before it would start working again. I couldn't find any specific circumstances under which this would happen and towards the end of the second week it was crashing up to 15 times a day, which became more than an inconvenience especially when you are in the middle of London and reliant on the device for directions. To make things worse it started to format itself, returning back to the default configuration and needing a complete reinstall of all applications and recovery of data, not exactly an improvement to productivity. Size matter too. When you put the 5550 a
longside some of the lesser models you quickly realise what a behemoth it actually is. Whereas the 4150 will comfortably fit in a shirt-pocket without a fuss, the 5550 is around half as big again, making it less than discrete. Couple that with the stubby rubber antenna that protrudes from the top corner and it really is considerably bulkier than its relatives. So the device was wrapped up and sent back from whence it came. The chap on the support line intimated that problems with the 5550 were not at all uncommon and suggested that rather than get a replacement, I traded it in for the 4150. His recommendations were backed up by the number of reconditioned 5550s available for sale compared with the number of recon'd 4150s so I took his lead and my 4150 arrived only 2 days later. In summary it has less memory (64Mb) a marginally smaller screen, no brightness auto-adjustment and no fingerprint scanner. Apart from that it's a far superior device for everyday use. Construction is far more solid, I have only had about 5 crashes in the space of two months compared with over 100 in two weeks and it is far easier to carry. SO if you want my advice, unless you need the extra memory or the external expansion capability of the 5550, save yourself about £70 and go for the smaller, sexier, more stable 4150.
I won't go into the details of how GPS works as there are a number of reviews round these parts that do a good job of explaining it. What I will do is explain why, after two years, I decided to upgrade my trusty old (bright yellow) Garmin eTrex to a shiny new (silver) eTrax Summit. Garmin are well known for their GPS offerings, with the eTrex range being aimed squarely at people who enjoy the outdoors. The old yellow eTrax (which I reviewed a while back) was, and indeed still is, at the bottom of the range. This is not to say it's a bad product, but after a few years of use, I started to realise it's limitations. Not wanting to cover too much old ground (and without trying to force too many more reads of an old op), the eTrex is a basic GPS device that is capable of storing up to 500 waypoints and a single route (which can be made of up to 50 waypoints). It maintains a tracklog and can allow you to retrace your steps and will let you navigate (using the word loosely) to any stored waypoint. But that's about it. So when you are going away for a week and won't have a PC with you, it can be a bit tricky working with a selection of routes. It's not unworkable, but it could be better. The improvement comes in the form of the eTrex Summit. A unit that comes in a sleek, waterproof silver case, the Summit boats a capacity for 500 waypoints, but can store up to 20 routes (of 50 waypoints each). It also seems to have a larger tracklog memory, meaning that more records can be stored before you need to download them to a PC. The interface is the same, a large LCD screen with luminous green backlight for night-viewing, sensibly placed buttons for single-handed use and a tough plastic case that will take being dropped from waist height without complaining. While the interface remains the same, the hardware (and software) has been upgraded from the base model. Whereas the base eTrex would only give you a compass bearing w
hen you were on the move, the Summit comes with an electronic compass for accurate bearings even when stationary. This does take it's toll on the battery life but can come in handy, especially when you have lost the GPS signal. In addition to the compass, the Summit also improves on the GPS-based altimeter function in the base model with the addition of a full barometric altimeter. This allows for a much more accurate plotting of elevation and gives an excellent calculation of ascent/descent rates. Both of these new functions come with their own GUI modes, the compass being the most familiar and the altimeter being the least useful, but it's all information and for the gadget-fans out there, it's good stuff. Because of the new features, the battery life of the Summit is poorer than the base model (around 12 hours compared to 18 without the compass) but this is bearable and should see you good for one or two long walks although in particularly cold weather you could get caught short by the batteries suddenly deciding they have had enough. So far, then, the Summit does everything the base eTrax can do and a few things more which make it much more useful for a hill walker/rambler type person. What the unit DOESN'T do is provide base-maps that you can use to navigate around unfamiliar territory. The Summit does have a map page, but all you will find on it are waypoints that you have marked and the track showing where you have been. It is very much a case of only getting out what you put in. Indeed it is the lack of base-map information that keeps the cost of the unit so low while still providing all the navigation features of the more expensive models. Where the Summit really does come into it's own is when it is used in conjunction with some mapping software on a PC (such as the excellent Memory-Map navigator). This allows you to create your own routes from Ordnance Survey maps and then upload them, waypoints and all, to the GPS fo
r future use. It's then a simple task of selecting the appropriate route when you reach the start point and the GPS will guide you all the way round (if needed). In summary, the eTrex Summit is an excellent upgrade from the base eTrex. The additional route capacity makes it a tool much better suited to a week long feast of walks and the addition of a proper altimeter and a digital compass turn it into a comprehensive navigation tool. The robust case and waterproofing, complete with the lanyard or even handlebar attachment makes it ideal for anyone with a keen interest in finding their way around the great outdoors, but it works best if you invest in a PC data Cable some mapping software and a bit of time using it before you go out. It just remains for me to remind you that a GPS should not be relied upon 100% for navigation. The signals are only accurate to within around 15m, but this isn't always good enough and there is always the chance that the batteries could run out etc. You should always venture out in the hills properly equipped with a compass and the relevant OS map.
Torches have come a long way in recent years and the development of the white Light Emitting Diode has probably played the biggest part in this. Very small, very tough, very energy efficient and surprisingly bright, they would seem to be the ideal way to generate light. The Black Diamond Moonlight is one of the new breed of head torches that make use of LEDs which means that it is smaller and lighter than it's traditional tungsten (or halogen) bulbed counterparts. Made up of two elastic straps (one that fits around the head as a headband with the other running front-to back to stop it slipping), a bulb unit and a battery pack it weighs next to nothing (about 80g) and even with a set of three AAA batteries (which are good for between 50 - 70 hours of light!!!) it only weighs in at around 120g. The battery pack is a waterproof rubber assembly that is attached to the strap at the back of the head. The actual lamp unit, attached to the front of the head-band, houses 4 very bright (seriously, don't look directly at them - especially in the dark) LEDs in an open-faced aluminium casing which is also waterproof. The whole lamp assembly can be tilted to give the best possible illumination and the on/off button is rubberised and waterproof too. The lack of a reflector and lens mean goes some way towards giving the Moonlight it's name. The watery blue-white light produced by the LEDs is very reminiscent of it's name-sake. In terms of illumination, it does an excellent job of lighting up the immediate area and around for a distance of up to 10metres. Perfect for pitching a tent in the dark as it leaves both hands free and floods a generous area with light. It's also excellent for use inside a tent where it can provide more then enough light for two people to read by. Where the Moonlight isn't so strong is when you're stumbling around the side of a hill in the dark. It's here that the 10-15m range would see you in troubl
e. It would probably be OK to use as a distress signal, and I imagine it would be seen from quite a distance away as a point source of light, but it would be no use in picking your way down a dodgey bit of mountain. It simply doesn't provide a focussed enough beam of light to pick a route out over distance. In summary then, if you want a head torch for general use around the house, campsite and country lanes then the Moonlight is perftct for the job. If you are planning trips that could see you stuck on a hillside in the dark, you would be well advised to take something with a stronger, directional beam that would help you get off the hill.
When I moved house earlier this year I had to leave my trusty shed behind. True, it had served me well over the years but alas it was nailed together and didn't look like coming to pieces any time soon. So it had to stay. Of course all the stuff in said shed came with us and, without a shed at the new house, made itself comfortable in the spare room, lounge, hall, in fact pretty much wherever it was left when we moved in. This was obviously unacceptable and so a new shed was acquired. Upon the arrival of the new shed I was somewhat dismayed by it's pallour. It was made of a wood that looked like it wouldn't stand a gentle rub-down with a wet sponge, let alone exposure to the British 'climate' for an extended period of time. Oh no, what this shed needed was a bit of colour. And preferably one that offered some degree of waterproofing and preservational benefits to boot. Enter "Ronseal Double Action Wood Preserver". Being a Ronseal product, I expect it to do "exactly what it says on the tin" which is waterproof and preserve the wood on which it gets painted, but why did I choose this particular 'flavour' of treatment? To cut a long story short, I originally bought a tin of Ronseal TimberCare waterproofing treatment, but on getting it homt and reading the instructions I learned that it was only for use on rough-sawn timber. Looking at the smooth-sided flanks of my shed, I was a little concerned that it was maybe not quite the right stuff for the job. A return trip to B&Q found me browsing the various treatments available for garden furniture, decking, sheds and fences. The whole assortment can be quite boggling but the thing to bear in mind is what you want to achieve. In my case, I wanted to add a wood preservative and also a bit of water-proofing so the Double-Action Preservative seemed like the ideal choice. Available in 6 'classic' colours (Country Oak, Rich Mahognay, Forest Green,
Harvest Gold, Red Cedar and Autumn Brown) it claims to provide a colour that lasts for 5 years. As far as the wood preserving portion of it'a abilities go it's allegedly deep penetrating and long lasting with the waterproofing being attributed to a high wax content. All this sounds like fairly nasty stuff, bringing back memories of buckets full of creosote, ruined clothes and dead plants. Not so with the Ronseal, the stuff itself is about the same consistency as a cup-a-soup and has very little odour. While plants are not likely to survive being directly painted, it is a lot less harmful than creosote etc. Th other good thing (especially when considering the British weather) is that it's rainproofing works after only 60 minutes. Having a house built of yellow bricks, I opted to go for the 'Harvest Gold' colour thinking that it would blend in the best. I wasn't quite prepared for just how 'golden' the colour would be when I opened the tin. Somewhat reluctantly I started slopping it about the shed, working it into all the gaps and making sure the coverage was even. The last thing I wanted was a shed with a streaky fake tan! A 2.5 Litre tin and an aching back later and I had covered all four walls of my shed with two coats of golden gloop. To my relief, it dried a little darker than my first impressions, with the natural grain of the wood showing through to quite pleasing effect. Brushes were cleaned with warm water and a drop of washing-up liquid, so not even any nasty chemicals to get the stuff cleaned. Spallter-marks on my arms washed off in the shower, the only remaining evidence is a pair of speckled jeans. Just to check some of the claims it makes about being waterproof, I gave it a quick blast with the hose. Sure enough the water beaded off the surface, with barely a drop remaining on the shed walls. It certainly looks promising, I'll just have to keep an eye on how it performs over the next few years. At £1
4 for 2.5litres it's not exactly cheap, but it's certainly cheaper than buying a new shed because the old one roted away for lack of a coat of preservative.