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I am currently fortunate enough to be pregnant, and as a result I am getting first-hand insight into a variety of pregnancy-related ailments. One which particularly plagued me recently was pain from stomach stretching and low back pain, and the only way to relieve this seemed to be kneeling on the floor and leaning forward over something. After a miserable day leaning on the sofa staring at the wall I decided I wanted a nice ball to lean on, so headed off to Argos.
What you get...
After handing over your money (a mere £6.99 in Argos) you are given a surprisingly small box. Inside was the ball (obviously deflated), a foot pump to inflate it and a black and white A4 sheet of instructions both for inflating the ball and suggested exercises to do once on it. These instructions stressed the ball is not suitable for use in pregnancy, which I'm assuming is because pregnancy balls need 'failsafes' to prevent sudden deflation that this ball doesn't have; however, since it cost all of £6.99 and pregnancy balls seemed to start at treble that I thought it was still an acceptable alternative.
Inflating the ball
The pump is a basic yellow and black 'bellows' type affair which connected easily to the ball. It is very easy to inflate and you can do this with either a foot or hand. Total time to inflation was around a minute.
The ball itself
The ball is silver in colour, shiny and has small raised ridges at approximately 10cm intervals around its circumference. Fully inflated it is 65cm in diameter. Even when new it doesn't particularly smell of plastic (important for me since my nose was very close to it!)
I've been using it to sit on and bounce/lie across multiple times per day for over 3 weeks now and it hasn't required re-inflating. It has been easy to wipe clean when drinks have been split on it and has generally been an unobtrusive addition to our living room. My husband has attempted to use it for its 'balance enhancing' properties and has also made use of it as an oversized football and it has withstood all this.
Cheap, easy to inflate and use... what more could you want in a ball?!
5 years ago, at a routine GP's appointment, I was told my blood pressure was high. As a slim, half-marathon-running 20-something year old I was surprised and not entirely convinced the result was 'real' - I'd always found visiting the doctor intimidating and having a tight thing around your arm buzzing away as it inflates while the doctor stares at you is not something I find relaxing. After several high results I decided I'd invest in a BP machine for home to see if I really did have hypertension (high blood pressure) away from the doctor's office. I purchased the omron MX2 from an online shop essentially because it was reasonably priced (under £25 including delivery) - but did it do the job?
Made of white and grey plastic, with two fairly large blue buttons and a large display screen, the omron MX2 looks sturdy and clinical. The main unit measures 11cm by 9cm by 12cm. Attached to this by a length of grey rubber tubing is the grey blood pressure cuff, made of quite a stiff material. The standard cuff which comes with the machine works for arms of circumference 22 to 32cm; a larger cuff for arms of up to 42cm can be purchased separately. It weighs 400g, which is a nice balance between not being too heavy yet not feeling flimsy.
Overall, the look and build inspires confidence - it appears of a good quality, and made to last.
The Omron MX2 is blissfully simple to use. You wrap the cuff around your upper arm, fastening easily with Velcro, then you press the first big button to turn the machine on and then the second big button to inflate the cuff. Et voila, the cuff inflates and in under a minute you are presented with a large-digit readout on the screen of your blood pressure and pulse.
The range of blood pressures measured is up to 299mmHg (more than high enough for the vast majority of people) and the pulse records between 40 and 180 beats per minute. The quoted accuracy is plus or minus 5% of reading for pulse and a more accurate plus or minus 3mmHg for blood pressure.
It is powered by 4 AA batteries which are easy to change.
Apart from recording the pulse and blood pressure it stores the last 14 readings which you can then scroll back through.
Well built, simple to use and 5 years on still on the same set of batteries -definitely a good investment, especially as it also proved my high blood pressure was just doctor-induced rather than real.
The only real limitation is the fact that as a basic model it cannot cope with variable pulses, and it does occasionally fail to get a reading on even a 'normal' person on the first attempt.
However, overall I have found it reliable and good value for money.
As a fan of bargain bookshops (with my reading habit I can't really afford 'full-price' books all the time) I often end up trying to find a third book to complete "3 for £5" deals. This tends to result in me buying books I would not usually read with varying degrees of subsequent reading enjoyment. "Kisses on a Postcard" by Terence Frisby falls into this category of books; as a female in my 20s I would not normally be tempted by a memoir about an evacuee's childhood, especially given its somewhat frumpy cover. However, the old adage encourages you not to judge a book by its cover, and in the case of "Kisses on a Postcard" I am pleased fate conspired to make me 'need' a third book and to ignore its somewhat uninspiring cover...
"Kisses on a Postcard" is a biography about one boy's experience as a wartime evacuee at the tender age of 8 from London to deepest darkest Cornwall. It begins by painting a picture of his life in suburban London (working class but comfortable, loving but no-nonsense parents) then introduces the onset of war and his subsequent evacuation with surprisingly little drama - as he himself reflects it was surprising he and his brother (with whom he was evacuated) were not more concerned about what was occurring, but that his mother's level-headed reassurance made them feel like it was an 'adventure.' He talks of the 'code' devised by his mother to ensure she knew they were happy where they were placed - they were to send a postcard with just one kiss if they were unhappy (and she would come and get them), two kisses it they were happy enough and three kisses if their placement was really nice. They are so happy with their 'foster parents' that they ring the entire postcard with kisses, and its this that sets the tone for a genuinely heart-warming book despite its potentially dark topic.
Terence talks about the day-to-day life as an evacuee, the people he met, the good and the bad of living in a small community and, eventually, his feelings on returning to London. It provides not just an interesting window into life as an evacuee but also an era that is now long gone - a time when children played in forests unaccompanied, walked miles to school alone at 9 years old, enjoyed rides in lorries with friends' dads and could be sent to live with entirely unknown adults with no CRB check in sight.
Parts of the book were sad - a particular passage about a funeral had me in tears (to the bewilderment of my partner) but this is definitely not a 'misery memoir', rather an upbeat tale of how 'normal' people can actually be amazingly big-hearted under difficult circumstances.
It was easy to read with an involving but not sensationalist style, and at 224 pages long is a good size to take on a long train journey to read. It also includes a few pages of photos, which as well as reminding you how much the quality of photography has improved in the past 70 years also helped you to relate to the people written about more.
Overall I am really pleased I stumbled upon this book - it was a nice variation from my usual genre and I think it would appeal to a wide variety of ages, from those still at school who are learning about World War 2 right though to those who lived through the war. My only criticism would be that it left me wanting to know more about what happened to all the people mentioned in the book afterwards - an epilogue would have made the ending more satisfying for me - but the author would probably argue that was not what the book was about. Despite this I found it a very edifying biography and look forward to lending it to friends.
One of my personal favourite TV shows is Top Gear, and its viewing figures suggest I am not alone in my enthusiasm for its trio of presenters with their boyish sense of humour and the mysterious 'tame racing driver' The Stig. Along with most other fans I was always intrigued by who The Stig really was - as an F1 fan of the 90s I secretly hoped it was Damon Hill, but as a cynic I felt he was actually probably a group of drivers rather than just one man. When he was unmasked in late 2010 as the Bristolian Ben Collins, I'm sure I wasn't alone in sayings "who???!" Even though he wasn't Damon Hill I was delighted that the cynic in me was wrong and the Stig was indeed just one person, and I was keen to learn more about the 'real' man and so brought "The Man in the White Suit", his autobiography.
I'm not exactly sure what my expectations of the book were - there had been such a media furore I wasn't sure if it was going to be a dull and self-serving rant, a genuinely insightful and caustic peek into the world of Top Gear or something in between (a grey area which many memoirs fall into, which I'd label as 'bog standard'). Happily I can tell you is that any concerns I may have had about the book were dispelled within the first chapter, as the engaging, conversational writing style had me hooked and resulted in several late bedtimes as I bargained with myself to "just read one more chapter..."
The substance of the book, unsurprisingly enough, is a lot about Ben Collin's time on Top Gear, but interestingly sections about his role as The Stig were interwoven with tales about his 'real life day job' as a racing driver trying to get sponsorship and succeed and more surprisingly about his training with the territorial army. There were also small parts discussing his early life and some fleeting but obviously tender mentions of his wife and family. It all hung together rather well, and my initial feelings of "I'm not really interested in the bits that aren't about Top Gear" were soon banished as they were written in such a way that I started to genuinely care about how the 'non-Top Gear' parts of his life worked and want him to succeed in these areas too.
There were a few gems about how Top Gear really works, such as how they film the various 'races' with the presenters then get people like Collins to redrive parts of them afterwards to get shots they would like but had missed first time round, but actual 'insider secrets' about the show, apart from obviously the fact that The Stig was Ben Collins, were really rather few. There were also few comments made regarding the main Top Gear presenters, and the comments that were present were without exception uncritical. I wasn't entirely sure whether this was the result of editing after threatened legal action or if Ben genuinely liked them; you got the impression it was the latter. From the overall tone of the book it was hard to understand what all the bluster about Jeremy and co feeling 'betrayed' and Ben being a 'traitor' was about - obviously Ben had a vested interest in appearing as a nice guy in his own biography but it read very much as though he took his 'secret identity' seriously and the writing of the book occurred after it was clear to him he was going to be unmasked by the media through a series of ultimate unavoidable clues (such as his name being listed in the investigation into Richard Hammond's accident) rather than him having set out to reveal himself.
Overall I found it an amusing, well written and very easy book to read, and at 352 pages long a perfect length to balance you feeling you've 'got your money's worth' and actually learnt something from the book without making it so epic that as the reader become bored. I was surprised at (relatively) how little of it was about Top Gear but on balance this helped you gain a more complete picture of the 'real' Stig, and there was enough about Top Gear not to feel you had been 'cheated'.
I would definitely recommend this book to any Top Gear fan and it has left me crossing my fingers that the 'real' Stig does well in the future.
I'm not usually a fan of prime (=fixed focal length) lenses as I like the options offered by zooms, but I felt I had to make an exception when I heard multiple people waxing lyrical about the canon 50mm, especially since with a tiny £80 price tag it meant I could have another new 'toy' in my bag without making too big a dent in my bank balance. And I'm so pleased I made an exception, as this is now one of my favourite lenses.
The reason for this is simple: the photo quality, in terms of sharpness and colour faithfulness, is simply unrivalled by any of the other lens I own, or any I've tried that I could possibly afford without taking out a second mortgage. With an aperture of f/1.8 it also allows great low-light shots, and impressive 'blurred background' portrait shots.
Downsides? Well, it looks and feels very cheap - very plastic and light. But of course its lightness (a mere 130g) can be a benefit as its easy to keep in your bag as a 'just in case' lens.
Overall I can think of no reason for an amateur D-SLR photographer not to invest in this lens - it's a small outweigh for a great payback in terms of photo quality. Even if, like me, you are not a prime lens type person, I'd give this a go and be surprised if you regretted it.
As part of my mission to upgrade my kitchen appliances out of 'studentdom' and into adult life I got rid of my cheap-n-cheerful white plastic kettle and invested in a stainless steel Morphy Richards kettle. But was it worth the outlay (just under £30 around a year ago)?
The 43026 has a classical 'jug' kettle shape. Its base, handle and lid are made of a sturdy matt black plastic, while the main body is brushed stainless steel with a generous plastic window in the centre to allow you to see the water level easily. It is around 21cm tall and 17cm across. Overall I would describe it as timeless, classic chic, able to fit in in both modern-look kitchens and those with a more traditional design.
The 43026 has a 1.5l capacity, easily enough to produce 6 mugs of tea which is the most I personally ever need and not so much that pouring it becomes unwieldy due to weight. The spout pours straight and without drips, and the handle (which as already mentioned is made of plastic) never gets hot. It has no 'fiddly bits' so cleaning is a straightforward case of wiping clean. It also separates easily from its base, which means no negotiating with lengths of electrical cord when filling it up or pouring out. It has a 'light up' switch to let you know its on, and it boils rapidly. In short, it works well!
A nicely designed, inoffensive kettle which does its job and after a year of use still looks new. Definitely worth the upgrade from my cheap white plastic one!
"Oh no no no!" my purest photography partner-in-crime exclaimed on hearing my plan to buy the tamron 18-250mm "Not a superzoom! Everyone knows they are rubbish! Just use your legs and walk about a bit more!" I took her criticism on board then promptly ignored it, so a little over a year ago became the proud but occasionally convert owner of the 18-250mm tamron.
Why own a 'superzoom'?
Basically, I just wasn't an organised enough photographer - I kept missing photos as I just didn't have the right lens on. Or because I was busy changing lenses (I shudder to think at the amount of dirt that must be on my sensor given my multiple changes in any photography day out.) Therefore, despite fully understanding that larger zoom range = poor overall quality, I figured I was willing to trade off some quality for convenience, sanity and a less sore back from lugging round lenses after a day out.
Why tha tamron?
Basically the price, and the range, were right. And in general its reputation for quality, although clearly not at the level of canon's, was fairly good.
And how is it?
Well, its range (18mm to 250mm, film equivilent 28 to 400mm) is amazing, and it has meant missing photos due to having the 'wrong' lens on is now a thing of a past. Its build is sturdy and reassuring but can make my little EOS feel a little unbalanced due to its weighty 430g mass. You also have to be careful to click the 'lock' on when just carrying it around else it snakes out to its full length.
The most important point is however of course the end photo quality: was my purist friend correct in her judgement of a superzoom as producing "rubbish" pictures correct? Well, yes and no. The images at 18mm I find embarrassing - the edges seem so distorted that I sometimes feel I have a fisheye on instead of a straightforward lens - but all the 'non-extreme' photos are perfectly adequate, and personally I also have no gripes about those produced at the long end of the zoom either, although I've noted from other internet reviews some owners do. Colours come out fairly faithfully and overall the images are easily as sharp as the 'classical kit ' 18-55mm canon, but not as good for exampled as the canon 50mm prime - but again, you'd expect that.
Overall no regrets. Yes, some quality has been sacrificed for range but its 'good enough' for an enthusiastic amateur such as myself and for the price (now around £225 for a canon fit) there are no obvious rivals. Recommended.
A while ago I became a photography enthusiast and invested in a whizzy 'semi-professional' digital SLR with some amazing lenses that extended out to envious proportions and allowed me to compose and take superb photos. But, it weighs a lot (over a kilogram with my favourite lense attached) and required a small sack to lug it all around. The result was that I realised I was missing lots of the photos I wanted to take as I was too lazy/it was too inconvenient to take my camera with me. So, around a month ago I embarked on a quest to find a truly compact camera whose photo quality and versatility could come close to my 'proper' camera. The result was me purchasing the canon S95. But did it live up to the high standards I set it?
The S95 definitely fulfils my 'compact' requirement, measuring slightly under 10cm by 6cm by 3cm. It therefore fits easily into even my smallest handbag, or my husbands jacket pocket. It is also blissfully light (coming in at under 200g on my kitchen scales) yet feels quite 'solid', feeling more 'metal' than 'plastic.' It has no grip as such, which can make it feel a slightly precarious to handle, but it is coated in a substance supposed to help you keep hold of it. Everything is very contained and fairly flush to the camera, including the flash which pops out of the top left (and surprised one of my friends who had borrowed it and had their finger over this area while it was trying to pop out!)
The back is mainly taken up by the screen (7.5cm across) along with a small cluster of control buttons on the right hand side. The screen is essential as there is no viewfinder (a new experience for me.)
For those into the basic aesthetics of it: its matt black, modern-looking and utterly inoffensive.
Firstly, allowed me a spot of geeky number quoting (if this doesn't interest you, skip to the next paragraph) The lense allows a focal length equivalent to 28 to 105mm (=covering most photos you'll likely to want to take) with an aperture of f/2.0-f/4.9 (=sensible range). Shutter speeds covered go from 1 to 1/1600 of a second, and ISOs from 80 to 3200.
In short, the basic specs of the camera live up to those of a basic digital SLR but in a far smaller product. So, in theory it has the power to take good 'basic' photos.
Away from 'basics', it also has a range of 'fun' features that can produce some interesting photos with absolute minimal effort, including a 'fish eye' (middle of photo big, outside smaller), 'colour select' (photo comes out in black and white with just one predetermined feature colour, for example all black and white except for any red bits) and 'poster' (which makes everything a bit 'pop art' and bright.) Of course all these can be achieved with any camera and Photoshop/ equivalent program, but this just makes it faster and easier.
It also has an acceptable-quality built-in video recorder.
As a novel added extra, if you have a spare £200 you could buy a special case for it allowing you to use it up to 40m underwater.
Using the camera
The joy of this compact for me is that it can be used either as a simple 'press button, get photo' camera or virtually as a 'semi-pro' camera with you controlling the shutter speed, aperture, iso and white balance. This means that it can be incredibly easy to use (press on button, press shutter, get photo) or can be more 'rewarding' as you control the variables yourself. The problem with controlling the variables yourself is of course that since its so compact its all rather fiddly and this obviously prevents it being used as a fully manual camera in most situations.
The photos produced so far have, in general, been of a quality comparable to that which I got from my D-SLR at 'normal photo' printing size. The only disappointing ones have been those taken in low light in 'auto' mode which were taken at high ISO and were therefore predictably grainy.
The battery life (quoted by Canon at around 200 photos) has not so far been a problem but I feel I may wish to invest in a spare battery before taking it away on holiday.
Downloading the photos to computer was completely hassle-free - I didn't even need to install any additional software onto my mac - I literally just connected the camera and away it went!
When researching which camera to buy the fact that this camera is often owned by real professional photographers as their 'always on them' camera sold it to me - if its good enough for them, I figured it would be good enough for me. And my experience of it has lived up to this expectation. Its easy to keep on you, it has a great range of features and takes good photos.
The main downsides for me are the lack of a viewfinder (somehow I just find it hard to compose a photo on the screen) and the not particularly impressive battery life.
The other issue is of course the price - at currently around £300, plus the cost of a memory card, case and most likely a spare battery, its not cheap.
However, overall it is definitely worth it and I have no regrets.
I had for a long time relied on a little plastic white toaster purchased for under a tenner whilst a student. However, just under a year ago as part of my 'growing up' I decided it was time for a 'real' toaster and so popped to John Lewis and ended up coming home with the CPT160U.
This is an unobtrusive toaster - classic shape, average size (around 25cm by 19cm by 19cm) in a brushed stainless steel with a black plastic dial plus 4 black buttons and a lever for lowering the toast.
It only takes 2 slices of bread, which is fine for me but if you have a big family you might want something bigger. The slots are wide enough for bagels, which is a bonus. It has button options of 'reheat' and 'defrost' that I have never needed but I can see could be useful and the usual dial to choose how 'well done' you want your toast. There is a metal tray to catch crumbs which pulls out from the narrow end.
It also has the built-in feature of not allowing bread to be lowered unless it is plugged in and turned on - a definite plus as it stops you coming back 5 minutes later wondering why your bread is still bread-like rather than toasted.
Bread is evenly toasted all over and 'basic toast' is done in an acceptably short time.
With its classic looks, good functionality, ease of cleaning and thus far good build quality I would recommend this toaster without hesitating.
Around 6 months ago I went on holiday and managed to leave my samsung phone charger at home. Since I am of a generation that cannot function without a phone I went off in search of a charger. My discovery? A new charger would cost me £15, a new samsung phone £20. Hence how I came to own the Samsung C3050, yet another of Samsung's low-cost mobiles. But does low-cost mean low-performance?
The C3050 is black, non-descript, fits in the palm of your hand and is roughly the same thickness as a female hand. It slides open easily to reveal a keypad, which automatically glows to highlight the numbers. The basic screen has the time clearly in big print in the middle with the day and date underneath it (good for people like me who struggle to remember such calendar basics). Once you click for the menu 12 coloured symbols appear to represent the various features of the phone.
It may be a basic phone but it has all the usual functions - phone book, texts, alarm, calendar, stopwatch, timer, calculator etc. It also has a few of the features you don't always get, such as radio. The in-built camera/video is best described as 'functional' rather than anything special, and the games it comes with are globally poor and in fact are mainly just 'trials' so you have to pay if you want to be able to play more than the first level.
The call quality
Like the phone itself I would call the quality of calls 'average' - not crystal clear, not terrible.
Ease of use
One of the plus points to it being a fairly basic phone is that it is easy to use and to find what you want. The buttons are big enough and responsive enough to make texting straightforward and in general nothing seems to be too sensitive/too stiff.
Its a cheap phone and therefore unsurprisingly will not compete with some of its pricier counterparts but it is functional, has bounced well when dropped and seems to have a good battery life, which is pretty much all I need in a phone.
The only feature that repeatedly annoys me is the 'fake call' option which is activated if you accidentally press down and then to the side, which my handbag seems to manage not infrequently which leaves me disappointed when I managed to locate my phone only to discover no-one wanted to talk to me!
In summary: recommended if on a budget
Just before Christmas a visiting friend noted a lego model up on the shelf. "Oh my god" she exclaimed "you're just like David Beckham - an AFOL!" "You what?!" I responded, utterly bewildered. She went on to explain that an AFOL is an 'adult fan of lego' and that Beckham 'outed' himself when it appeared in national newspapers that to kill time when stuck alone in Italy he'd built the lego Taj Mahal. "Hmmm" I thought "Taj Mahal in lego sounds interesting"... And so, Christmas gift to better half this year was the huge lego Taj Mahal kit.
The box it came in was impressively large (over 65cm long and 48cm high!) so made for an intriguing present under the Christmas tree. Once unwrapped it was clear what you were aspiring to build with a large picture of a fairly true-to-life Taj Mahal on the front.
Inside the Box...
The lego came all jumbled up seemingly randomly in 3 sealed bags. The website stated there were over 5900 pieces and indeed once we opened the bags the floor was a sea of cream, grey, blue, yellow and brown lego pieces. Thankfully there were 3 colour printed instruction booklets in the box that gave clear diagrams to guide the transformation of all the little bits into a Taj Mahal.
The actual building...
This is not a lego set for beginners, those who are inpatient or, according to lego, those under 14 years. Other half refused to sort the pieces into matching piles, stating this was 'cheating', so with this handicap (but the advantage of over 25 years lego-building experience) it took around 18 hours of devoted building to finish. The instructions were detailed and clear and although parts of the building were inevitably repetitive the sheer exhilaration of seeing such a familiar landmark grow and of making a dome out of lego made up for this.
The finished product...
The end model looks impressively like the Taj Mahal and is an imposing 51cm wide and 41cm tall. It is hollow in the middle so if you dim the lights and shine a torch in the centre you have a nice 'glowing' Taj Mahal. Despite its size it is quite robust except for the minarets on the corners which would not take much to knock off.
Undoubtedly the best lego kit I've ever seen - challenging (but not impossible) to build with an ascetically pleasing end result. Being lego the quality is obviously good, but equally being lego this quality comes at a price - I got it on 'special offer' at around £170 but in general it costs around £200. The only other criticism was that at the end of the build we appeared to be 6 pieces short - but its possible we had lost these and either way we informed lego via a form on their website and they sent the pieces to us free of charge within a week.
So in summary - a great gift for a lego lover who you love enough to spent £200 on!
For the first time ever, I feel the need to start my review with a disclaimer: I am in no way associated with Zoku. I felt I needed to make this statement as I am completely in love with their ice lolly maker and I know some of you reading may think such abject enthusiasm for an object that costs nearly £40 just to make ice lollies must make me either mad or in their pay. Since I am definitely not paid by them (which is a shame) I shall leave it to you to decide if I am mad or not...
So... on to the review of the ice-lolly maker that costs £40...
What you get for your money
The main unit ice-lolly making unit is like a rounded 'block', roughly 21cm long, 11cm wide and 11cm wide. The outside is a hard white plastic, while the 'business' part that makes the lollies is a metallic silver metal with 3 moulds sunk into it for the lollies. The two parts are joined by a bright orange plastic seal. Inside the main 'block' is some form of refridgerant, which the website reassures you is 'not toxic.' The official website also proclaims that the zoku is 'BPA and phthalate free', which I confess meant nothing to me but after a bit of googling they are apparently substances used in plastic manufacture that have been linked to various health scares.
Apart from the main 'block' you get 6 lolly sticks, 6 'drip catchers' and a 'super tool' (more on that in a moment.) The sticks and drip catchers are made of a robust white plastic and click together easily. The handle of the stick is quite substantial compared to normal lolly sticks and is ergonomically agreeable with a nice curve to it. This may be partly to make it easier to hold but it is also partly to allow a threaded bore to be concealed within it, to aide the removal of the lolly from the mould using the 'super tool'. The 'super tool' is a specially designed to help you get the lolly out of the mould with minimal effort, and is essentially a hollow orange plastic handle with a 'screw' in the middle which you can insert into the threaded bore of the lolly sticks to help get them out of the mould.
So how do you make the lollies?
When you first get the zoku you need to leave it upright in the freezer for 24 hours. Once this is done, you can get down to the fun of creating lollies. To make a lolly you remove the unit from the freezer, put on the side and pop the lolly sticks into the mould holes. You then pour in whatever you want to be your lolly, and leave for 6 minutes (or watch fascinated for 6 minutes for the first few occasions!) At the end of 6 minutes the lollies are frozen. You then screw the 'super tool' into the handle of the lolly stick until the lolly magically loosens from its mould, at which point you take the super tool off , grab hold of the stick, pull the lolly out, click on the drip catcher and eat!
The unit can make 3 lollies at a time, but you can make 3 'rounds' of lollies before having to place the unit back in the freezer to 'recharge', meaning 9 lollies per 'sitting'.
What kind of lollies can you make?
The joy of the zoku ice lolly maker is that you can try all sorts of flavours... you are pretty much limited only by your imagination, and the requirement of the substance in question to be amenable to freezing and able to be removed from the mould (ie not too much alcohol so it can freeze and some sugar in it to aide removal.)
Their official website shows all sorts of beautiful creations - ice lollies with stripes (easily achieved, just partially fill mould allow to freeze then add a different layer), ice lollies with different inside cores to outside (slightly tricker as you have to fill the mould with one flavour then suck out the middle with a straw/syringe once the edge has frozen but before the middle freezes, then add a different flavour to be the middle core) and ice lollies with slices of fruit frozen in them.
I'm personally a fan of freezing smoothies in it - they come out delicious and they feel 'healthy'!
The main difference between lollies made in 'traditional' sets and those made in the zoku is that the zoku freezes them quicker so they freeze in a radial pattern from the outside in to the stick. This means that when you bite them they break and taste like a 'real' lolly, whereas the 'old fashioned' home-made lollies tended to come out like solid ice cubes on sticks that required teeth of steel or sucking to death.
So why do I love the Zuku?
1. It's going to save me money!
I've always loved icelollies, and over a summer this ends up being expensive - I personally don't like the really cheap freezy pops or own brand lollies as they are too 'artificial' and full of sugar, so I end up buying the more expensive 'pure fruit' lollies which tend to cost around 50p each. With the zoku I can make gorgeous lollies that are as healthy and as tasty for far less. For example, my current Achilles heel is innocent mango smoothie lollies. Each lolly requires around 50mls of smoothie, so a 1litre carton of smoothie that costs £2.50 makes 20 lollies = 12.5p each. Assuming both myself and my partner have a lolly a day (which is an underestimate over the summer) using the zoku saves us £5.25 per week, so pays for itself in under 2 months.
2. It's healthier!
Shop-bought lollies tend to have more sugar in them. For example, a M&S cloudy lemon lolly (size 73mls, so slightly bigger) has 12.8g of sugar and 50kcal. A lemon lolly made from Robinsons lemon drink (size 50mls) has 0.04g of sugar and 1.25kcals. The zoku can also have fresh fruit added to the lolly, and you are in total control of what goes into it - a big plus for me.
3. It allows more variety!
If I buy a set of lollies, I can only have whatever flavours are in the box. With the zoku, I'm limited instead by what is lying around in my kitchen (and attempt at a layered Pimms and lemonade and neat lemonade lolly was possibly overambitious, but still fun!)
4. The lollies feel 'professional'
As already mentioned, one of the biggest pluses for me is the fact the end result have the texture and feel of a 'real' ice lolly rather than the solid ice cube outcome of other home-made ice lolly kits.
5. Its quick
Once the unit is frozen, you can have an ice lolly within 6 minutes of deciding you want one, in contrast to traditional home-made ice lolly kits that take 12 hrs or more. This also gives you the freedom to decide what flavour you want there and then, in contrast to the traditional method where you'd have to decide 12 hrs in advance.
What do I not like about the Zoku?
Well, the initial price of it was slightly eye-watering, and I nearly didn't buy it because of that. I also don't like the fact the orange seal joining the two parts of my unit isn't flush with the top so juice can sometimes get frozen underneath it, which is annoying. 3 lollies is also a slightly random number of lollies for it to make at a go - in general you'd need either 2 or 4, but I guess since you can make 3 'rounds' this is a minor grievance. Finally the unit itself isn't light (I just placed it on my kitchen scales and empty it weighs around 900g) so I suppose if you were particularly weak this could be a problem.
I absolutely love my zoku and think it was definitely worth the initial outlay - in fact I love it so much that if anyone wants to buy me a second one for when I'm washing the first one (which I do around once a week) I'd be most grateful!! A lot of thought has clearly gone into its design and the build quality is good, and best of all the ice lollies made by it are fabulous.
I recommend it without hesitation, as long as you have the freezer space to store it.
And so, dear readers, I started by asking if you thought I was mad for spending £40 on an icelolly maker... hopefully I've persuaded you that I'm not, buy feel free to leave your judgments in the comments box!
Update April 2011:
Nearly a year on, and literally hundreds of ice lollies later, my Zoku still looks like new and none of the 'bits' (sticks, magic tool or drip catchers) have broken.
I therefore still stand by my very positive review!
While walking through a well-known department store recently my eye was attracted to a stack of WobBally games (target age 5+). I wasn't there to buy a game, and I don't even have any regular contact with under 18s, but somehow I never grew out of being attracted to brightly coloured things and as a result I ended up purchasing WobBally, a very brightly coloured game that is a little like Jenga but with plastic balls rather than wooden blocks.
On getting it home my other half looked dubiously at it. "You brought it because its bright, didn't you?" he accused. "No" I replied unconvincingly "I got it because it looks fun... you liked jenga in the past." He looked at me with a hint of despair then decided that he'd get this over with quickly.
We opened the box and set about arranging the 98 balls in layers with plastic discs between them until we had a circular tower of balls (time taken: around 5 minutes). We skipped the instructions, assuming (correctly) that you played by rolling the dice then knocking out a ball of the colour indicated using the little plastic poking stick. He went first and expertly prodded a ball out of place. I went next and promptly destroyed the tower's structural integrity, resulting in a cascade of balls everywhere. And I mean everywhere. We had used the plastic barrier provided with the game to prevent this happening, but it was rather flimsey and in short was about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. Once we had located the majority of the balls (time taken: 20 minutes) we reassembled the tower (time taken: another 5 minutes) then played again, with similar results (gameplay time: 3 minutes.) At this point even though all the balls were colourful they lost their appeal and the game was returned to its box to languish in disgrace for a while.
Then we had to visit my parents, and remembering my father suffers from the same affliction to bright objects as myself I thought WobBally deserved a chance to redeem itself. This time even my other half failed to knock out a ball without the tower collapsing, a situation he attributed to my parent's table not being quite flat.
We left the game with my parents and they reported subsequently enjoying successful games on a flatter surface and reported that it kept them and their middle-aged 'gang' amused while they drank wine. However, despite this eventual positive feedback I don't feel I can recommend this game - there seemed to be far too much setting up time, too much potential for loosing bits and not enough play time.
A while ago I decided I needed a new hobby and after some consideration plumped for photography. I enthusiastically bought a D-SLR and set about reading books to try and bridge the gap between using a 'point and shoot' (='normal') camera, which requires you only to press a single button to take a photo, and a D-SLR (="proper") camera which requires you to decide on the ISO, shutter speed and aperture before you press the button (unless of course you use your D-SLR in full auto mode. Which quite frankly for me defeats the object of owning a D-SLR.)
After a while, and a variety of both successes and failures in terms of my end photos, I decided I'd like to take some lessons in photography to try and increase the ratio of successes to failures in favour of the successes. I had a week of holiday to fill so a week-long course seemed like an ideal solution, and after some research I decided to attend the London School of Photography's (LSP) Beginners Photography Course. So did this do the trick?
LSP is located on Oxford St so if you can get to London its central and easy to find. The 'classroom' is a light, modern room located on the 6th floor of an office building, and thankfully there is a lift.
'Lessons' run from 10:30 to 16:30 on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday being left free for you to do a project assigned at the end of the Tuesday class. Our group was 5, but I got the impression groups could probably be up to double this in size. Some of the time is spent sitting in a semi-circle in the 'classroom' being taught the more theoretical aspects of photography with the aide of powerpoints (and regular use of your own camera to reinforce what is being discussed) while a proportion of the time is spent out on 'location', for example in Soho Square for a tutorial on 'tracking' and shutter speed, in China Town for a mini project and in Covent Garden looking for 'patterns' and 'reflections'. Each evening you are also given some 'homework' to do which you then bring back to discuss the next day.
The scope of what is covered in the week is phenomenal - everything from focusing to exposure to white balance, flash and composition. By the end of the week I felt I controlled my camera (rather than the other way round!) and there were no longer any buttons/knobs whose function were a mystery.
Our teacher was Luciana, who has got to be one of the most bubbly, patient and perpetually optimistic people I've ever met. She smiled continuously, was genuinely enthusiastic and clearly loved photography. Although teaching photography is her full-time job (alongside some freelance professional photography) she seemed utterly passionate about it in a way few people are about something they are paid to do. She broke complex things down into easy to understand steps and was always ready with an analogy to help us if we didn't understand something. She managed to be always positive without being patronizing, which is an incredible skill few people possess. With her energy it was impossible not to be swept along in a wave of exhilaration at the possibilities mastering your camera/photography presented.
At £595 for the 4 day course it isn't cheap but I think it was excellent value for money - the teaching was fabulous and I now feel I have all the 'basics' to go forward and practice on my own. I would unhesitatingly recommend this course to friends.
My other half, at the age of nearly 30, loves lego. I love the game Pictionary. It was therefore inevitable that when we saw the game 'Creationary' it was going to have to be an addition to our household.
What is it?
Creationary is essentially Pictionary with Lego. It comes with a rule book suggesting several different ways you can play it but each way basically comes down to pick a card, look at the picture on it and make what the picture shows using lego, hopefully to a standard that allows the other players to guess what it is.
How easy is it to play?
Very, if you have lego 'skills'. Less so, if like me you're a lego novice and lack imagination. Thankfully the creators of Creationary have tried to allow for this by producing cards of different difficulties, so younger/less talented players can still play and be presented with less challenging items to make.
Whats the quality like?
Good, obviously - Lego are renowned for their quality and this is no different.
Is it good value?
Well, like all Lego is not cheap, but you do get over 100 lego bits to make your creations with and it is a game that can engage lots of age groups - the box suggests from age 7 but younger children would probably be able to play with help. And of course it draws in all the 'big kids'...
Would I recommend it?
Yes, but with reservations. Its novel and fun, but the multiple parts make it potentially a rather messy game prone to being rendered useless by careless tidying up and because of the time it takes for the 'creations' to be made it risks being far more fun for the player doing the making than for everyone else.