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I recently stayed in Shanghai for a few days, and although we were coming home from there, it wasn't as a means of getting to the Pu Dong International Airport that I rode on the Airport Maglev Shuttle.
I just did it for the hell of it, a brash act tempered by the fact that it only costs about 8 GBP return.
So for your 8 quid you get to say that you've ridden on the world's fastest service train. (Guinness Book of Records will back this claim up!)
The Shanghai Shuttle runs at a top speed of an exciting 431kph (270mph).
The shuttle isn't quite the panacea of rapid transit from city centre to the airport as many travellers would wish, is it starts at what you might say was somewhere out in the sticks, at the Longyang metro station on Line 2. Thus, you're faced with dragging your luggage on the Metro, which would be a pain in the rush hour, or face Shanghai's awful traffic in a taxi to Longyang.
We travelled light so didn't use the generous racks in the coach vestibules. The trains if you can call them that run as 3- and 5-cars, both very sleek.
Platforms are fenced until the train comes to a stand. The floor is level with the platform, and the gap is only an inch. Access to platforms is via escalators.
Interiors are spacious. Aisles are wide, and blocks of 3 seats face each other on either side.
The run of 30kms (19miles) is achieved in under 8 minutes. Allowing for acceleration and braking, means that it doesn't cruise long at 431kph.
Overall, that's an average of 160mph which on such a short run is highly creditable.
Was it smooth? Yes, but not silky-smooth, just adequate for the speeds achieved.
WHAT IS MAGLEV?
Maglev is a wheel-less means of land transportation using magnetic repulsion for levitation and linear induction for propulsion. Basically, dismantle an electric motor and iron it out so that the rotating bit is spread flat under floor, and the outer non-rotating part is flattened and spread the length of the track, thus instead of trying to chase its own tail, it chases an end of line that seemingly never comes (until you want it to).
Back at Longyang metro station there's an excellent exhibition of magnetic levitation with many full-sized parts from the actual trains. If you work at the Chinglish you can come away rather better clued-up than you were before you went in!
It was proposed to run the tracks straight through Shanghai and out the other side to its other airport, which has a bullet train interchange and would have made huge sense, but concerns over costs, noise and magnetic radiation (that's rich coming from a population with a smart phone surgically attached to its ear!) have seen this consigned to the bin which is a pity as it would have been so much more useful if it started somewhere more central.
We've always liked to take a portable 'world radio' with us on our travels. Not so I can listen to the cricket whilst in Iceland or the BBC World Service from just about anywhere. It's just that I delight in combing the air-waves once installed wherever it is I'm going. Now that the cut-off date for killing VHF/FM in Britain seems to have moved yet again, I feel quite safe in buying a 'non-DAB' radio, in the knowledge that it'll still be working in the UK for years to come, and anyway, local stations will continue on analog FM.
Our current radio, a Sony, which we bought quite literally donkey's years ago at Luton Airport whilst waiting for a delayed Cyprus flight had served well, but just lately it's felt a little like it was on its last legs, as the aerial mount seems to have cracked and fallen away, leaving the extending antenna rather vulnerable to the slightest extra blow, either physical or a strong wind!
In checking e-bay, I was pleased to find that practically the same radio is still available. I was less pleased to see that it cost over £100. Thinking about it, it cost us about £45 in circa 1990, so that should come as no surprise.
This led to the inevitable churn of what else was around when searching for 'world radios'. Time and time again, the name Tecsun kept cropping up. Not necessarily a name you'd recognise, as it's an emerging Chinese brand, but I'm reliably informed that companies like this also make 'badged' offerings for the likes of Grundig and so on.
Tecsun make an alarming array of multi-band radios, in a huge range of prices from about twenty quid up to £130.
After reading around on the subject on various 'radio ham' sites, it appears that the model PL-660* is pretty highly thought-of in such circles, the one reviewer on Amazon.co.uk referring to it as the 'best sub-£200 portable'.
(* This is not to be confused with their somewhat cheaper PL-606 model, before someone tells me that I've paid too much!)
This is pretty impressive as it cost me £70 to import one from Hong Kong including postage, but running the risk of letting HMRC get their teeth into taxing it on entry to the UK. Even so, and if they can be bothered, you'll still pay less than the cheapest UK supplier at £88, what a surprise. In the end I had to pay £11.25 before my local Post Office would release it. It wasn't till I got home that I realised that only £3.25 of that was duty, the other £8 was Royal Mail's outrageous 'handling fee'. Apparently, according to my friendly guy at the parcels' desk, they're obliged by their licence to 'make a profit', and I'm seemingly paying for the entire cost of running the service, including the expense of sending back other's unclaimed goods to sender.
Presumably, once they've seen the handling fee, it isn't worth paying for parking to collect let's say '19-quids-worth' of goods, £18 being the magic number below which HMRC won't stoop!
WHAT YOU GET FOR YOUR SEVENTY (OR EIGHTY) QUID
a) The radio - obviously.
b) Four rechargeable NiMh AA batteries - how refreshing is that? (It will run off standard AAs too).
c) The charger to go with them, including a UK plug adapter.
d) They give you a wire aerial reel to hang somewhere strategic when you really do want to pull in distant stations and don't mind turning your hotel room into something looking like an "Allo, Allo" bedroom in occupied France. This is in addition to the normal telescopic aerial fixed to the radio which does for all local use, as you'd expect.
e) A travel-wallet to protect the radio although it's wise to operate the power lock button so as not to turn it on through the soft material whilst in transit, possibly causing an 'international incident' as you're asked to explain the 'shushing noise' or time-pips emanating from your luggage.
f) The instruction booklet (also available as a download).
Compared to my last radio, the Sony, this one is quite large, being 187mm wide, 33mm deep and 114mm tall. This leaves it looking rather slim, and since the facia leans back in a curve, prone to falling over especially when the telescopic aerial is extended. However, help is at hand in two forms. Firstly, there's a pull-out metal wire foot at the base, and secondly, there's a flap at the back that hinges up and out, so that the radio can be rested at about 45 degrees, i.e. lay it down before it falls down. This is a good viewing angle when tuning it for a table top.
Standard of construction seems to be favourable for something made by a firm you've never heard of, and this is no doubt how firms like this get the contracts for larger well known brands like Grundig or Philips to put their badges on.
You CAN specify a silver one, but I figured that this was most likely a paint finish, and since you have to 'thumb' this box quite a lot, whilst working the myriad other controls, the black semi-matt seemed a better idea.
The tonal range of the radio when operating on one speaker is fine, and there's a two-way switch to better suit it to music or speech. I guess this is a benefit of it being a tad larger than what I've been using - even the speaker is larger. The tonal range when using stereo headphones (yes, it's FM Stereo too) largely depends on how good are the headphones.
Well, there aren't too many to be honest. The only major let-down was the fact that there's now hardly anything on Short Wave, as most nations keen to show-case their way of life, or put their own slant on the news do so via the Wibbly-Wobbly Way Interweb Browser thingy these days, and that's hardly the radio's fault. I did manage to pick up a very strong Chinese station broadcasting in English so I know it works!
Living near Heathrow, I trawled the entire 'Air Band' to find nothing. Presumably airliners have gone digital? I'll give it another try when I'm nearer to a lesser airfield.
Whatever happened to the 'London VOLMET' channel? I used to enjoy telling my classmates how many octars of cloud cover we could expect in Hounslow!
There's a friendly back-light behind the LCD display, and you can operate a power lock by pressing both the OFF button and a Lock symbol to prevent the radio wasting power when in its soft pouch.
Sadly, the back-light doesn't seem to form part of this security lock, and can be tripped on and off by outside pressure on just the wrong spot.
The instructions in English do leave a little to be desired, and sometimes take quite a bit of 'retranslating' to make any sense of them.
For example "Note: For the silk-printing in red or orange on radio with brackets, it means that you can only operate it when radio is off."
I now know this to mean "Note: Buttons labelled in brackets, where printed in red or orange only function when the radio is off." Why I need to know that they are silk-screen-printed is anyone's guess.
It just goes to show that you really do need a 'native speaker' of English, or any language for that matter, not just somebody claiming to be fluent in it. I'm for ever reminded of my late Dad's Honda commuter bike, the instructions of which proclaimed in capitals "IT IS MOST IMPORTEND!" We never did find out what was so 'importend'.
Inevitably, the electronic revolution has turned the emphasis away from 'knobs' to select things in favour of everything being 'menu-driven', which means a steep learning curve if you thought that radio means 'steam-radio'.
Yes, I'm glad I bought it; after all the old Sony isn't going to last much longer, but anyone wanting to pull the world into their room now needs internet access instead as the world deserts radio in droves. However, it is quite compact in its pouch and I particularly like the fact that it has rechargeable batteries, which as yet, I've not run down.
Anyway, there's always the BBC World Service!
With the exception of those of us who have to buy central heating oil or gas separately by virtue of where they live, those of us without the internet and those, like my mother, who don't want the bother in case it upsets 'them', most people will have given at least some thought to shifting their allegiance between electricity and gas suppliers, possibly annually.
For a start, throwing your lot in with one company gets you a 'dual-fuel' discount straight away (are you listening Mum?).
Then, thanks to various comparison web-sites, it is pretty easy to find the best deal for you, provided of course you know what your usage actually is - more of that later.
This is where I find myself, having escaped the individual clutches of British Gas and Southern Electricity probably a decade ago, allowing Npower to become my sole fuel supplier. At the time they really were the cheapest deal for me at least, and I was happy to let this continue for as long as the www.uswitch.com web-site showed them as being at, or near the top of the list every time contracts came up for re-assessment by both parties, verbalised by me as something like "I can't be arsed changing to save 30 quid a year!"
However, a couple of price hikes back, their proposed increase was so swingeing that I began the process of looking around again. Lo and behold, this is where First Utility became known to me. Not only were they way cheaper than Npower's new tariff, but from what I could make out, they were going to charge me less in that new year than Npower had done in the previous year!
So I waded in and signed up via their web-site. All that was over a year ago, and in fact my first 'lock-in' is not really expired yet as I write. Keeping an eye on the comparison web-sites does indeed confirm that they remain my best deal for yet another lock-in up to July 2015, albeit dearer than the one I'm currently paying, what a surprise.
In theory only, my existing tariff still had two months to run when I received an e-mail from them informing me of their new lowest tariffs, with the stern warning that these couldn't be guaranteed to exist at 31st March, so it was with some reluctance that I changed to the dearer tariff two months early. It remains to be seen whether I have been conned into parting with more money sooner than necessary - time will tell. Sneaky though, I wonder if they pull that trick with everyone as their lock-in draws to an end.
Since First Utility first burst onto the scene as one of the new breed of independent suppliers, by which I mean not one of the 'big boys' that actually produce the stuff, their prices have crept up until they are ONLY JUST the cheapest for me. When I first signed up, they were what seemed to be a complete 'price hike' behind everyone else! This seems like a typical 'rope them in' tactic, but even so, the figures speak for themselves, which is why I'm staying.
Heaven knows there is a raft of reasons not to stay, the prime one being the recording that you get when phoning them telling you that "all our staff are busy owing to unprecedented new demand". If you hear this, you are in for a LONG wait. Anyway, if they're doing that well, maybe hiring some more staff would be a good idea.
Fortunately, you can do most of what you want via their web-site, including signing up to a new tariff - well, when the site is working you can. That's another thing to moan about.
For the first few months, I'd been very happy with the web-site. I'd get an e-mail to prompt me to input monthly meter readings, which I dutifully did. The web-site draws pretty graphs of my usage, and then, when I get a further e-mail, I can view and/or download my latest bill.
Then came the great black hole in the process. For some reason, despite being able to take my meter readings and draw graphs, it couldn't list my recent bills. I've had to wait for three months for that to be rectified, and then, not by the appearance of the missing bills, but by the emergence of one combined quarterly bill, which makes trying to track your usage versus payments nigh on impossible especially as this was the 'winter quarter'. Oh yes, and they took AGES answering my e-mail to query this.
All of this gave me little confidence in my recent tariff change actually taking place, especially as no confirmation e-mail was received, only a quick message flashing past telling me that the change would take place on 1st February unless I heard otherwise - sorry guys but that about as appropriate an assurance as 'knock twice if there's no-one in'.
It would indeed appear to have happened as promised, as I can see from the web-site that my tariff is the new 'July 2015', not my old 'March 2014'.
Somewhere along the line, I seem to have lost the ability to alter my direct debit (upwards by about 8 quid was what I ahd in mind). I do hope this doesn't mean being at the mercy of their 'average usage' estimates, and then have them owe me a shed-load of money in July 2015! As I said earlier, I KNOW my usage for whole years, both for gas and electricity in kilowatt hours, and as a result, can work out what I should be paying without someone applying the rule of their own thumb.
As I can now turn my heating on and off remotely whilst way from home in winter, and given that this dreadful wet 'patch' we've been having does at least mean this winter's been milder, I'm pretty confident that my usage is currently on a downward trend since last year - another reason why I don't want THEM telling ME how much my charges should be.
WATCHING TARIFFS LIKE A HAWK
If you venture onto one of the comparison sites, like www.uswitch.com, you be will be asked various questions. The 'what is your postcode, are you on a dual-fuel tariff and do you pay by direct debit' are the easy ones. When it comes to usage, inputting how much you currently PAY is probably the least satisfactory way of kicking off the process for the simple reason that you could easily be paying the wrong amount! No, kilowatt hours are the way forward if you can find.
Electricity is easy; take last year's meter reading away from this year's to get kilowatt hours.
Gas is harder and has been ever since they decided to use kilowatt hours as the standard unit instead of something volume-based. You still subtract one reading from the other, but this only gives you cubic metres (rarely cubic feet these days). To see how this converts to kilowatt hours, you need a conversion factor, which is a compound calculation taking seasonal and regional factors into account. If this is too daunting, have a look at :-
www.utilitiessavings.co.uk (p.s. I would have given you the whole link, but Dooyoo won't accept 'words' of greater than 80 characters!
where you can input the figures supplied on your bills to convert them to kilowatt hours.
One of the reasons why I decided to stick with First Utility was that, despite their declared 8% price hike, seemingly along with everyone else, it wasn't going to cost me quite that much more. Why? Well, I hardly use any gas at all during summer months, sometimes there'll be whole months with no usage at all. Therefore, the gas tariff's standing-charge, is for me, money down the drain for a quarter of the year.
Therefore, if someone were to lower the standing charge in favour of dearer units, that would suit me better, which is what First Utility have done, so my price hike is more like 7%, but like I said at the beginning, you need to watch prices like a hawk, and know your own usage patterns to get the best deal.
After a very promising honeymoon period during which they were about 8% cheaper than the rest, they've inevitably raised their prices (ironically by more than the average) until they are ONLY JUST cheaper. However, 'only just' does it for me, especially as I'm already signed up with them. Whether I could 'be arsed' to move over to them for 30 quid is another matter entirely!
I wouldn't say their customer service is any better or worse than the rest, but to be honest, that's not saying much. It's not even being damned with faint praise. This is strictly about saving money, which is where I came in.
The first message that greets you on the First Utility web-site is that they 'guarantee' that their prices will be lower than the standard tariff of the 'big boys'. Well, heh, even the 'big boy's' have tariffs lower than their standard ones! Fortunately for First Utility, they still come out ahead for most people.
iSave Fixed v14 June 2015 Incl 5% VAT
Electricity Kwh 12.33p
Electricity Daily Standing Ch. 17.85p
Gas Kwh 3.806p
Gas Daily Standing Ch. 15.77p
There are many ways of receiving TV channels these days, but your choice is somewhat less comprehensive if you don't pay a subscription to someone or other, e.g. Sky, BT, TalkTalk or Virgin Media.
Sure there's Freeview (via an aerial) and Freesat (via a dish), and these do indeed carry a lot more channels than an old analog-only TV, lest we forget.
Given something to record Freeview programmes, like my Humax Fox HDR T2, there isn't much that I feel I'm missing out on, in fact the box even has internet access to BBC iPlayer, but sadly none of the other 'big four' catch-ups.
What if some organisation could come up with a set of parameters whereby the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) could not only scroll forwards up to 8-days, but BACKWARDS one week on channels that have a 'catch-up' programmes assigned to them, making viewing future and past programmes as seamless and as intuitive as possible?
What if someone was to build a bit of kit that could record up to two programmes from Freeview and give access to all four catch-ups in the seamless manner envisaged above?
Well, take a bow, YouView and Humax.
YOUVIEW? SOUNDS A BIT LIKE FREEVIEW!
Well that's right, YouView includes all of the parameters for Freeview + HD, like the ability to record programmes both in SD and HD picture qualities.
However, where YouView differs is the addition of integrated internet access required to allow the use of TV catch-ups and other services (some of which may need a subscription, Now TV from Sky for example).
There's a whole raft of other terms and conditions, some related to Accessibility and suchlike which I won't go into here. Suffice it to say, that what started out as a joint exercise involving the BBC and others, called 'Project Canvas', became 'YouView' under the directorship of Sir Alan Sugar.
The box I'm writing about is made by Humax, although there are others, one of which is made by Huawei*, and a third, whose manufacturer has yet to launch it.
GETTING A YOUVIEW BOX
There are two ways of getting a 'badged' box for 'free' one being to take on a TV package from BT Internet - this method gets you a Humax box, and secondly, to take on the equivalent from TalkTalk, which gets you the Huawei version - widely thought to be inferior.
Alternatively you can buy the Humax version in two guises and two disc sizes. There's the original HDR T1000 and the newer HDR T1010 which seems to be merely a cosmetic upgrade, there being no difference that can be discerned in the specification. Both offer the choice of a 500gbyte or 1tbyte hard disc. Therefore anything that's written about the T1010 applies to the T1000 except for how it looks.
Expect to pay from £160-£250 for a new retail one depending on version and disc size.
Another good source is e-Bay where all the people who paid a subsidised fee for a BT-supplied T1000 under the BT Vision tariff put them back on the market no doubt hoping to make a tidy profit! However, even if still wrapped and unused I'm not sure what happens to your warranty from Humax if BT supplied it with their badge on. As a bare minimum, make doubly sure the seller accepts returns if it doesn't work. I would caution against paying more than £150 for one of these though, as at time of writing, Dixons/Currys were supplying BT-badged versions of the DTR T1000 for £160.
SETTING ONE UP
This turns out to be pretty easy really. Connect it up to an aerial, a TV via an HDMI lead, a hi-fi/home cinema via the optical digital output if you want to, and last but not least the internet via its RJ45 socket. Oh yes, and feel free to turn it on now! You may initially find that the remote control also turns on any other Humax kit you may have, but fortunately those clever 'Hummy' people have provided 6 different frequencies over which their remote controls operate, and it's a doddle to change it.
My set-up went without a hitch, although some of the 2 minutes waits in between reboots are a bit worrying.
Once you've got the basics running, there are plenty of tweaks that need to be considered from the not inconsiderable list of Settings.
For a start there are four permutations of power-saving to consider, taking into account such features as stand-by wattage (it can be as little a 1 watt - but then the box takes 100 seconds to boot-up) to 19 watts, which is near as damn it the same as leaving it switched on. Yes, there are reasons why you'd want this which I'll touch on later. Both of these major settings are further modified by deciding if you want the aerial output to the TV left live so the TV's tuner works too.
If your broadband is fast enough, you can set it to opt for HD programmes by default in the catch-up services.
OPPORTUNITIES THAT GOT CLEAN AWAY
Unlike its predecessors in the Humax range, e.g. my existing HDR-FOX T2, it has no pretensions to be a file server for your home network, so there'll be no streaming of its contents to PCs dotted around the house - nor can you browse your home network for juicy files elsewhere and watch them on your TV.
Yet again, Humax launch a bit of kit with USB ports promising much but producing little except the bit of text in the manual that marks them 'for future use', a future that seemingly never comes. There have been several firmware updates so far, so if it was going to happen, it should have by now. To be fair, you can now add a cordless keyboard to the USB ports for those moments that require more than button pushes, but still no file transfer.
There's no provision for a wi-fi link to the internet via your home router - this baby is firmly stuck in the hard-wired Ethernet camp, despite the fact that most of these are likely to be working in living rooms away from the router in many cases. In a way, it's a blessing in disguise as it forces you down the infinitely superior hard-wired route, possibly using a 'Homeplug' solution to channel the internet via your house mains, but many people only find out too late that the expenditure didn't stop with buying the box. As mentioned before, thanks to the lack of USB functionality, you can't even add a wi-fi dongle, although if determined to use wi-fi, there are adapters, such as the TP-Link TL-WA890EA N600 Universal Dual-Band 4-Port Wi-Fi Entertainment Adapter, which takes your house wi-fi and turns it back into Ethernet at the distant end, leaving the Humax box none the wiser.
To be fair, it's only the lack of wi-fi that's going to affect most people; the issue of it not being able to act as a media server is, I suspect, only of concern to a geeky few. Oh yes, and you can't transfer files from this box to back-up or turn into DVDs elsewhere.
This does seem a shame, that in a box that's so feature-rich, it has in many ways taken a step backwards. Had Humax had a free hand in designing the YouView box, it would no doubt have embraced everything that had gone before, prior to building on it. However, the sad fact is that, whilst the DTR T1000 is cosmetically identical to other Humax offerings, the design of the guts, and the firmware, are the diktat of the YouView committee. The T1010 has an updated appearance, being slimmer and with what appears to be a brushed aluminium facia which still lets you see through it to the LCD display.
OPPORTUNITIES THAT DIDN'T GET AWAY
The way in which the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) and the list of catch-up programmes are integrated into one display, either side of the 'now' line is superb.
What a killer feature! Just missed a programme? Press 'Guide' and scroll back into the past and click on it to play it from its catch-up equivalent. Effectively you've got an EPG that stretches 7 days into the past as well as the customary 8 days hence. You'll even find with some programmes that haven't even come on just yet that you can start watching them now!
There are other means of accessing catch-ups, after all lots of programmes are stored for more than 7 days and you might want to search for one by name. This is where the big friendly blue button labelled 'YouView' comes in. Pressing this followed by selecting 'On Demand' gets you a screen with all four main TV catch-ups plus another for UKTV (channels like Dave, Yesterday and Really) and even S4C, useful for Welsh-speakers living away from a suitable transmitter; there's Sky store for renting movies and the Now TV access also driven by Sky but needing a subscription.
Another knockout feature especially in what is a service that only costs the licence fee and no more, is the ability to set timers via a smart-phone or tablet from anywhere in the world. Gone are the days when friends who have a Sky Plus box can sneer about what their precious box can do compared to yours. Sadly, because this means keeping the box almost fully alive (although the disc will spin down eventually), this is one of the occasions when a higher stand-by wattage is needed, possibly around 19 watts.
Syncing the box to a phone is easy once you have the iPhone or Android 'app' installed. You're allowed up to 5 devices, and all you have to do is transfer the code as shown on TV to the app when first making the connection.
If say, you decide to only do this when on a 2-week holiday (when even the Radio Times couldn't tell you what was on in the second week), be aware that changing it back to a more economical standby mode afterwards involves breaking the remote connections and starting all over again next time inputting codes to the app. I also found that you have to clear the data cache for the Android app, otherwise it doesn't know it was disconnected in the first place, giving you the impression that it was setting up programmes successfully when in fact it wasn't! This can be quite a pain, although if you only link the box to one device it's not too fiddly.
This, like so many other bits of 'PVR' kit that I've had (and still have), seems a little like I'm field-trialling it as some kind of unpaid beta-tester. It does however actually work, and the picture quality is excellent, especially on HD programming.
However, I could do without the 'profligate' standby power usage of nearly 20-odd watts just so I can:-
a) Use the remote programming and
b) Not have to wait the best part of 2 minutes for it to boot up from the 'colder' eco setting. (I've now gotten into the habit of turning it on the instant I sit down!)
There must be greener ways of getting new programmes added to your timers from your sun-lounger in Lanzarote, like maybe getting the box wake up every couple of hours to check if 'anyone's left it a message'. That's basically how my customised Humax T2 works - a single daily check-in in the wee small hours augmented by any other time that it comes alive to record.
All in all a good bit of kit for those that like it as automatic and intuitive as possible - it does what it sets out to do and no more.
Hobbyists that like to dabble with custom versions of the software or want to use it as a media hub for a home network should give it a wide berth.
One of the advantages of having someone in the household with a bit of cash weighing on their mind in the form of a pension lump-sum, is that you only have to say 'We've never been to Helsinki, have we?' and said person goes quiet for half an hour on the PC in another room, only to re-appear announcing that four nights in Finland are duly booked!
I wonder if 'I've always wanted a Mini-Cooper S' would work too?
TO BOLDLY GO.......
Travelling there was simple enough, helped by the fact that my local public transport actually GOES to Heathrow, and not having heavy bags, taking the bus and/or Underground outside of the rush hour was no big deal.
Flying to the capital, Helsinki (aka Helsingfors in Swedish), takes nearly three hours as the flight is slightly over 1,000 miles, largely eastwards which is significant. Short-ish flight it might be, but time on arrival is a whopping two hours ahead, which, given that you've only got three hours in which to prepare for this difference leads to an unexpected amount of 'jet-lag' to get over.
Helsinki Airport has yet to get any kind of Metro or rail link, so Express Buses (or taxis) it has to be. Most of these go straight to the main railway station square in the heart of the city.
"That's easy for you to say!" - or not. It's actually the Finnish equivalent of No Entry, but I only know that because it headed up a list including Swedish, English and Russian!
Whilst most Finns tend to be tri-lingual (Finnish, Swedish and English), at least those in contact with the public are, most signs are only bi-lingual if you're lucky, so it was only by leaning on what I knew of Swedish (from a knowledge of railways AND German, to which, on paper at least, it bears a passing resemblance), that I could make out that we were indeed on the right bus. "Järnvägstorget" roughly translates as 'Iron-Way Square'....I think.
To be honest, there's seems little point in trying to learn Finnish, which seems to be largely unfathomable, coming from a tiny 'gene-pool' of languages that seems to include Magyar and very little else, unless of course you're marrying a Finn and want to know what your future mother-in-law is saying about you. I do however know that 'Kiitos' (pronounced kee-toss) is 'thank you' - oh yes, and that 'ei sisäänkäyntiä' is no entry!
Once safely arrived at the Railway Square, we merely had to track down a number 4 tram going in the right direction and get off right outside our hotel - here again the next stop names flash between Finnish and Swedish (thankfully). Having managed this feat within one hour of buying the Express bus ticket, there was no further charge.
To put it bluntly, I spent the entire long weekend in a Finnish jail - well OK, an EX-jail!
Hotel Katajanokka was indeed a prison up until as recently as 2002, reopening as a Best Western hotel in 2007. Rooms are now somewhat larger, although still not enormous, made by knocking two cells into one! Fortunately, slop-buckets have given way to proper en-suite toilet facilities plus all the usual expected fripperies, like a TV with bugger-all English-speaking channels and a mini-bar.
The old 'Pentonville-style' cruciform structure is largely intact, there being a central point on each floor where you can see all four wings. In the basement, you can even view an old isolation cell, kept on as part of the hotel's duty to act as a museum too - hopefully it's never pressed into service when the hotel is over-booked! We had very little to complain about at the hotel with the exception of nasty lumpy pillows which seemed to be filled with those cheap foam remnants, and thanks to the thick walls, we had to stand in the corridor to make the free wi-fi work!
The hotel uses this location to its advantage with quite a lot of wit. For example, their wedding packages are referred to as 'Starting Your Life Sentence' and you can buy souvenir tin mugs with karabiner attached for about £5 and stripy numbered 'convicts' t-shirts for something similar.
Our only other 'complaint' would have been the prices in the hotel's "Jailbird" restaurant (waiters dressed like warders from a US State 'Pen' and water served in tin mugs) had they not been NORMAL for Helsinki. As an introduction to Helsinki night life, we'd opted to eat at the hotel as we couldn't be sure of our arrival time but even we hardened Londoners baulked a bit at paying over twenty quid for a burger, and around £8.50 for a half litre of admittedly nice beer (Baltic Porter).
However, this was nothing compared to our later experiences. To be fair, food portions were generous, which cannot be said of my wife's wine, ordered by the glass in really mean amounts but still at high prices. It's no surprise that dining-out couples rarely order a whole bottle.
They say that in advance of any foreign travel, you should scrutinise what you've packed, throw out half of it and take twice as much money instead. In Finland's case, keep all your clothing in case the autumn weather turns nippy AND take twice as much money!
This is one of the few foreign breaks we've taken where I didn't put on any detectable weight!
Perhaps the new 5:2 Diet? Eat for five nights at home during the week and then spend the weekend in Helsinki!
For the rest of our eating out, we alternated between cheap snacks (well, cheap for Helsinki) at lunchtime and expensive dining out in the evenings. It naturally makes sense to stoke up on the unlimited buffet breakfast at the hotel. The harbour front is a good source of impromptu eateries, as there's a market there most days, ramping up to that most exciting of Sunday celebrations, the Herring Festival whilst we were there.
The 'Blackadder' phrase "the winter evenings must just fly by" comes to mind.
Our two main meals out were at a home-brew pub/restaurant and the decidedly un-Finnish-sounding 'Copas y Tapas' where we were served excellent locally-sourced small dishes, all with a narrative supplied by a Breton waiter who'd previously lived in East Grinstead - I'm still not quite sure why I found that funny, especially ending up speaking French to pay the bill. This being my wife's birthday, pushing the boat out a bit seemed in order (as long as she promised not to expect a present too!). Now I've seen my credit card bill, I think I got off quite lightly at £135 for the two of us.
Less good value and decidedly chilly inside was the brasserie. Unbeknown to us at the time of booking, they were scheduled to have a kind of mini-Oktoberfest complete with a new batch of wheat beer and an 'Oompah Band'. Fortunately, we'd gotten most of the way through our food order, approximately half a pig each, before the players arrived. I'm not a great fan of the 'genre' and after a couple of rousing choruses of 'Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit,' we paid our bill (about £80 IIRC) and left. Maybe they felt that the rowdier customers expected later would do the heating for them!
I GET AROUND
Helsinki has a tram system that British cities can only dream of. Of course, it helps that its streets are wide enough (and quiet enough) to allow the trams unhindered access to kerbs and centres of roads in equal amounts. It's fortunate that Helsinki seems to only have relatively light road traffic compared to British cities. All the trams are modern articulated jobs (mini-trains really) with digital displays of route end and next stop. There's a centre section with kerb level floors for loading prams, luggage, old gits etc. Other doors, whilst appearing to be at kerb level do require a 'leg-up' once inside. All trams negotiate a 'dog-bone' loop at line-ends so that you only loose the floor space to one set of doors on the right as with a bus. Likewise there's only one cab taking up precious passenger space as these trams never have to reverse (unlike those in Croydon and other UK locations)
Tram shelters give you a helpful ETA of the next tram. Day tickets really do last for 24-hours (i.e. they don't expire shortly after the last bus or tram of the day runs). At 8.50Euro, somewhat better value than my beer!
Talking of beer, there's actually a vivid red vintage tram operating as a pub, serving ales and sympathy as it negotiates a circular tour of the city centre.
There is one solitary Metro line but for our purposes we never felt moved to use it as it seems more of use to those living in northern suburbs.
The Helsinki harbour area also has an archipelago of small islands, some served by ferries, some even by car ferries. We took the Suomenlinna (Sveaborg) ferry, which was included on our day tickets. It's a 15-minute ride to a pretty and tranquil group of islands linked amongst themselves by bridges. There's a lot of military history here, and I was well impressed by Finland's only remaining submarine on static display. Finland had been stripped of its military navy after the Second Wold War, having been put in the unenviable position of defending itself against the Soviet Union, thereby by default, aligning itself with Germany.
WHAT TO SEE
Well, it might seem odd to kick off this section with a recommendation that you get the hell out of there, but Linda Line do actually operate a 'Fast-Cat' ferry service to Tallinn in Estonia, which takes about 90 minutes, so if you've a hankering to start checking off Baltic states from your list, now's your chance. We tried, but unfortunately, the sea was too rough and we got our money back, deciding to retrieve what we had set aside as a day out by taking the fast bus to a little town called Porvoo, which is about 35 miles north-east from Helsinki.
Transferring to an 'ordinary' ferry wasn't an option because:-
a) We'd missed it and
b) Being a lot slower, it takes too big a chunk out of the day.
As it happens, Porvoo has a charming old world clapper-board area with brightly-coloured houses, antique shops and cafés, with a peaceful riverside setting. The drive there is through mile upon mile of lake- and wet-land interspersed with deciduous forest. I couldn't help thinking how it would look during winter though, it being only early autumn when we were there, but already decidedly colder than back home.
I'll be honest and say that with only a long weekend in Finland, we didn't visit any of Helsinki's doubtless excellent art galleries and museums with the exception of (Suomenlinna) Sveaborg Island which is more or less a museum in its own right - eating out's more our thing.
Wandering around its wide boulevards and shopping streets, and especially the harbour front, with a view across to an Orthodox church gives an air of 'mini-St. Petersburg' to the place, which isn't that surprising I guess given that the latter isn't exactly a million miles away, Finland had most recently (up until the time of the Revolution) been a Duchy of the Russian empire, and a large part of it had to be rebuilt during the Russian period.
It's not a huge city, hence the fact that apart from shuttling to and from the hotel on a No.4 tram, we didn't really feel the need to use public transport or a taxi.
There are streets where houses vie for supremacy in some kind of "look how 'art nouveau' I am" competition; doorways you half expect Bilbo Baggins to emerge from. Shops built in the 1930s in a timeless style still look fresh today - I'm thinking of the famous Stockmann department store here. There are grand squares like the 'Senatstorget' in front of the Senate House. There are cobbled side streets - in fact take supportive footwear as a day on cobbles, which extend onto pavements can be hard on the feet.
And of course, there are hotels made from jails!
Yes, probably once my savings have recovered, and probably in better weather so that trip to Tallinn will be possible.
The GoPro camera range has become famous for its toughness in adversity and its versatility. Now in its third iteration, the Hero 3 range comes in white, silver and black variants.
The 'White' is the most basic version, although all three can shoot stills and videos from within their waterproof housings.
The 'Silver' and 'Black' versions build on this. All variants sport the ability to be controlled remotely via built-in wi-fi with a 200 metre range; they only really differ much from each other in their video modes. The 'Black' can shoot slow-motion video at 120fps as well as the normal 24 fps, the 'Silver' can manage SOME Slo-Mo, but not THAT slow. The 'White' only shoots stills at 5 mega-pixels, whereas the 'Silver' and 'Black' muster 11 or 12 mega-pixels respectively.
You don't even have to buy the dedicated wi-fi remote control as there's an iPhone and Android app that will do this for you, AND give you a bird's eye view of what the camera's seeing on your phone or tablet screen. You can even save the streamed results at the distant end without bringing the camera back to earth as it were. Curiously, this operates with about a 5-second delay, but for framing still shots, or aiming it prior to leaving it running strapped to the a ski, let's say, the Android app works just fine. You can only really use this for aiming the camera during movies, because the wi-fi link can't carry full HD video continuously. As a viewfinder for stills, it's fine though.
I first got interested in the GoPro whilst on a recent holiday in South Africa at a game lodge. Jacques, the park ranger was coaxing a GoPro forwards on what appeared to be a portable radio aerial to see if four gambolling cheetah cubs would get curious enough to come closer without upsetting Mum - apparently cheetahs don't regard us as food but this was no reason to push our luck as we were on foot at this point. The results gained were superb up until the point they knocked it over and all we saw was grass!
On another occasion, a Japanese tourist was fixing his GoPro to the cabin window of the Table Mountain cable car. Little did he know that it's the floor that rotates once the ride gets going but the windows don't so he only saw his GoPro about once in every two minutes and all he got was a movie taken from the same standpoint!
Always a sucker for a gadget, especially a "gadget with suckers" (see what I did there?), I got to thinking about what I'd do with one. Being both a cyclist and a motorist, I'm getting rather uptight about misuse of the Cyclist's Advance Stop Line, both by the car drivers who ignore the first line and by cyclists who then move forward of both lines. I've already started a 'naming and shaming' album on my Facebook page and I'm thinking of taking matters further. A GoPro fixed inside my windscreen when driving and to my handlebars when cycling would make this a much slicker process than my first efforts with a smartphone.
Having a waterproof casing as standard and the ability to be triggered from a distance also make staking out the bird table to see what's biting in all weathers an interesting project.
It can also 'do' time-lapse photography over varying intervals - the one thing it won't do, thinking of wildlife photography, is allow itself to be triggered by movement which would have been nice if only to find out who or what drops fag ends on my car in my own drive! You'd need one of those super-tough Bushnell things for that.
With a special 'treat' of three laps of Silverstone in a Ferrari looming (can my wife pick a Christmas present or what?) and after all the nasty things I've said about Top Gear and the 'phwoar' mentality, I decided that now was the time to get one and also the additional rubber sucker for a temporary fix on car (and cable car) windscreens.
Prices for the Hero 3 Silver version vary wildly, from an RRP of nearly £279 on the GoPro official web-site down to £195 from a UK-based eBay seller, so it doesn't take a genius to guess which one I bought from. I'm not sure why one of Ciao's (wash your mouth out Chris) previous reviewers choose to rant about the fact that it had cost him A THOUSAND DOLLARS - his capitals, not mine.
Being a bit of a rail excursion nerd too, I could also see a application for the rubber sucker, on the OUTSIDE of the coach vestibule windows if you can find one old enough that still has opening windows, that is - it's obviously advisable to avail yourself of one on the many safety lanyard options when shooting from the exterior of a vehicle just in case the sucker doesn't hold for ever. There's a wealth of 'after-market' accessories for these as well as official GoPro ones, and I've even seen one convincing 'probe' made from an extending paint-roller stick! Perfect for standing at the back of crowds and still 'getting your man' in shot, especially using a phone in your hand as the viewfinder.
Along with rubber suckers, there are handlebar clamps and head straps making you look like a miner with flat batteries.
After a bit of a struggle to unwrap it without damaging the packaging too much, these were shall we say a bit of a let down. I had to download the latest software version to even get the wi-fi access to work with the phone app. I don't get this. The website not only boasts about the new wi-fi feature but then warns that this will only work with the latest software - here's a tip guys; put it in yourselves , it's not like you didn't know about it!
I also thought that not supplying any kind of microSD memory card at all was a bit tight. This is not going to win them many friends during a Christmas morning present-opening frenzy in the same way that the dreaded 'batteries not included' message would. Still, at least you do get a battery, a rechargeable one, and not as one of the aforementioned opinion web-site's other reviewers claimed, admittedly in 2007, "2 AAAs which last about 5 minutes"! If you intend using any of the rapid-fire modes, get a class 10 card so its write-speed can keep up. A 32gbyte class 10 card cost me about £9, and you can even use 64gbyte cards.
After the dust settles on your Herculean efforts to unpack it, it dawns on you that the black plastic plate that the camera was attached to will make a damned fine table-top rostrum as it has a replica of the fixing shoe moulded into it, and the high quality acrylic lid which sat atop the packaging serves as a fine show case.
WHAT IT CAN (AND CAN'T) DO
The camera itself is a tough cookie, being only the size of a matchbox, including the first battery - you can fix another one on behind it, and here's the nice bit, every time you add an accessory to the back, GoPro supply you with a new waterproof back (and others) to fit over it. The same applies to the piggy-backed rear LCD viewfinder.
Having the waterproof back on impairs sound quality so for the ultimate in recording when not 'doing a Cousteau', they also supply a 'skeleton back', although obviously, you won't want to go snorkelling with this fitted! You can also film upside down, for those occasions when you really have to hang it down from the top of a car windscreen, not standing it on the dashboard.
As it's something designed to run unattended, there's no auto-focus, in fact it just doesn't focus at all, relying more on good daylight and the extreme 170 degree wide-angle lens fitted. This doesn't stop it producing good sharp results within its parameters.
Early results from within my car shot on a dull day are nonetheless quite sharp and the movie action is smooth. Being such a wide-angle lens reveals a fish-eye look to the frame edges and gives the impression of hacking along streets at way above the speed limit as the edges of the frame quite literally shoot past. A friend of mine has even filmed himself hanging on for dear life on the pillion seat of a jet-ski in a very choppy Weymouth Bay, using what appears to have been a broom handle sticking out ahead of him. You can even take advantage of its high pixel count to limit the field of view to the centre of the frame, making the results a little less 'fish-eye'.
Of course, the wide-angle nature of its output also helps to iron out the worst excesses of the rough ride it'll no doubt get whilst strapped to a bungee-jumper's helmet or the handlebars of a trail bike - the jet-ski shots look quite steady. In any circumstance where it might get dropped, some kind of lanyard is advisable; maybe even a flotation aid to help detect it in anything up to 200 feet of water! Any deeper, and it may have gotten wet inside anyway. There is an official flotation aid which affixes to the waterproof case but you couldn't expect this to float the camera AND any attachments, like metal poles.
Each to his own I suppose, but essentials for me were the suction cup mount for filming from cars, an extending pole with a tripod screw at the business end and a mounting clamp for bike handlebars.
Anything else, like a clamp to hold it to a bird table, I'll improvise from one of the above combined with a g-cramp from my shed!
Having just returned from a SAGA holiday (our first), in South Africa, a week of which was spent at a game lodge, I was in a quandary as to which I would write about.
I have therefore decided to write about both! In this review, I'm sticking more to the 'SAGA experience' and our three days in Cape Town; in the next, (should the category ever get created) I'll deal with our week living inside the same fence as do wild animals.
It being my wife's retirement year from teaching, she wanted to book something special, so that the pension lump sum didn't look quite so big afterwards. She also wanted to take advantage of being on holiday WHEN CHILDREN WEREN'T, and if I'm honest, she probably also wanted to book something safe in the knowledge that her erstwhile colleagues had just returned to work.
We'd always said that we fancied a 'safari holiday', and it was with some surprise that we found one just for us in the SAGA brochure - (yeah yeah, "Send All Grannies Away", I know, I know!).
Costing at around £2000/head for a 'nine-night' holiday in a private game lodge, it sounded quite pricey on the face of it, even if it did include all flights on scheduled aircraft from Heathrow.
However, when you delve deeper, it gets cheaper once you compare with, say booking it yourself. For one thing, holiday insurance is included, a not inconsiderable sum bearing in mind the 'ageing demographic' of SAGA's main customer base.
Secondly, (and according to some SAGA 'old hands' this has only happened since they joined forces with another tour company), they are also including your transfer from anywhere in England and Wales to Heathrow and home again afterwards. This could be a considerable economy if your only alternative is to drive there, possibly book an overnight hotel and then pay for off-airport parking.
OK, we didn't cost them much and it took us all of 15 minutes to be driven there via an 'unapproved route' joining the M4 via the Heston Services (naughty boy), but bear in mind some of our party had come from Haverfordwest in west Wales. Ironically, on the way home, they had to endure being taken a whole 5 miles out of their way to drop us off, but it's a free service - no-one said it was express too.
Not content with splashing four grand out, 'her indoors' decided to include the £500/head add-on of going to Cape Town for three days in advance, including the extra flights involved, and it was as a single pair of travellers, passing through Heathrow, on a different day seemingly to everyone else, that we had our first experience of the kind of 'cosseting' you might expect from SAGA.
Firstly, all their call centres are in Britain so no more do the hard-of-hearing have to struggle with anything stronger than Estuarine English, innit.
On the day before we were due to travel I received the following slightly stilted phone call.
"HALLO...MISTER....GREEN, ....ARE....YOU....EXPECTING......A MINI-CAB.... TOOOOO-MORROW?"
Had the caller spun it out any longer, it would have been 'tomorrow!'
I confirmed - it was tempting to whisper, but I wasn't feeling that impish. I know SAGA is only one letter away from ga-ga, but really....
So it was that our cab turned up on time and whisked us off, via the aforementioned 'naughty way' onto the M4 and thence to Heathrow Terminal 1.
We'd been warned that's it's a wise precaution to get bags that are likely to stand around in Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport shrink-wrapped as the place has a worse reputation for pilfering than even Thiefrow can muster.
Curiously at Heathrow T3, the wrapping service is 'logically' placed in the arrivals hall, involving a tedious to'ing and fro'ing till we finally got to check in. I was surprised to find:-
a) We were the only travellers with SAGA that day, and
b) That SAGA had still seen fit to have us met and greeted, even at Heathrow.
As someone who travels frequently and lives only five miles away I found this rather amusing, but of course, we should bear in mind that there's a first time for everything and some of SAGA's customers could be somewhat older than ourselves (and they were!).
As we were transferring to a Cape Town flight, I was slightly dismayed that we couldn't 'check our bags through', but rather had to reclaim them in Jo'burg and transport them ourselves to the domestic flights terminal (OK, just the opposite end of the same building). I think this is something to do with a 'first port of call' rule in South Africa.
Anyway, suffice it to say that 11 hours in an economy seat on an SAA Airbus has done nothing to improve my views on air-travel, but at least flying almost due south during the night meant that we were 'only' tired, not jet-lagged too, as the local time was only one hour ahead of the UK and it had taken 11 hours to get used to it. The seasons were reversed, but the time of day was nearly the same!
After a fairly brief wait in Jo'burg, the mood being raised by a sparkling group of local lads working in a coffee bar, we went through security, where they didn't give a 'monkey's' about liquids so don't worry about that duty-free booze you forgot to put in your case, and took the two hour flight to Cape Town.
At Cape Town, we were met by Chris in the by-now-familiar blue SAGA blazer, an ex-pat Brit who'd gone to South Africa in 1966 and was waiting for England to win the World Cup again before going home! Accompanied by Chris, we were whisked away in a nice big mini-bus to our hotel for the next three days.
Now, 'her indoors' doesn't believe in slumming it, as our three nights at The Table Bay Hotel will attest. This impressive gin-pala...errr...edifice stands on a promontory at the end of the now gentrified Victoria and Alfred (yes Alfred) dock basins. My heart sank to the depths when they apologised for not being able to comply with our request for a sea view, but soared into blue skies, when they revealed our panoramic view of the docks and Table Mountain with a ceremonial sweep of the balcony curtains! Thinking about it later, what would have been gained by a sea view? It's not like you could see Antarctica from the fifth floor.
If I'm honest, we did feel a little too 'over-helped' by our rep, who often volunteered to walk with us to places we had no trouble in finding by ourselves, but maybe it was the lack of other customers. It was after all, winter going on spring there.
Not only was the room superb, with a reasonably priced mini-bar, AND, shocked gasp, a hook on the back of the bathroom door*, but the included buffet breakfast taken at the harbour-front lounge was truly magnificent and the crafty could stoke up to carry them through lunch up to an early dinner! We seemed to find room for all three meals of the day, and given the very reasonable prices paid for eating out, it's none too surprising.
(*Believe me, my wife gives hotels a rough time on Tripadvisor is there isn't one!)
Eating lunch in the V&A Mall, we both had 'Kingklip** and chips', a beer each and a coffee each, paid a tip and still only paid £12.95 in total.
Dining at what Tripadvisor rated as Cape Town's third highest-rated restaurant still only cost us about £42 for the pair of us, including service and a decent bottle of South African wine. Some of it is VERY decent!
(**Local fish defined by Wikipedia (so it must be right, right?) as a 'cusk eel' but white and meaty like hake.)
Wandering a bit from the central theme of 'SAGA', a short stay in Cape Town also offers not only good value fine dining but there's the prospect of a ferry trip to Robben Island, site of so many of Nelson Mandela's years of incarceration (though not all of them) and a trip on the famous Table Mountain cable car. Yes, you can hike up but take the same precautions you would fell-walking in Britain, i.e. be prepared and dressed for four seasons in one day and let someone know you're doing it, in case 'The Tablecloth' descends on you and you get lost in fog!
We were lucky; we managed to 'do' both in one day as the weather was crystal clear. The day before, when we did an open-top sightseeing bus tour was a tad changeable, with the cable cars disappearing into the mist at about their passing point, i.e. half way up. The cable cars take a lot of people by surprise, not least the person who stuck his all-action camera to the window with a sucker, only to find out that the floor starts to revolve, leaving him checking his camera once every two minutes or so! This does however stop someone 'putting a towel' over the best window. Views from the top are stunning if a little chilly and windy in winter, and you get to be greeted by the cheeky little 'Dassie', the Cape or Rock Hyrax. You'd swear these were rodents like overfed Guinea Pigs, but apparently they're a distant (VERY distant from what I can see) relative of the elephant.
SAGA = SOUTH AFRICAN GAME ABOUNDS
Thus after three days we were transferred back to Cape Town Airport for a return flight to Jo'burg. This was to be our last sighting of the lesser-spotted blue-blazered SAGA representative till Heathrow.
At Jo'burg, we now followed our previous footsteps through security for internal flights, our luggage this time booked through to a little known airport called Phalaborwa in north eastern South Africa, quite close to the Kruger National Park, the borders with Botswana and Mozambique, and more to the point, the Kerongwe Game Reserve, home to the Shiduli Game Lodge and four others of varying states of luxury ranging from 'no, it's your turn to go out of the tent in the dark and empty the slop bucket' to 'boy, peel me another grape'. We were nearer the latter with 'would you like grapes with that?
Although the Lodge didn't have a SAGA representative per se, one of the rangers with whom we would be taking our 'game drives' had been appointed in the role of SAGA liaison. All meals were included in our tariff as was an 'open bar' the only drinks needing to be charged to our rooms being 'imports' although, mercifully, G&Ts made with Gordon's came under the 'free' banner. Curiously a lager from Windhoek in Namibia was an 'import' whilst Carling Black label wasn't.
Just about the only other need to pay for anything was when the subject of extra game drives above and beyond those already included arose, and a couple of extra day time trips, for example to an animal rescue centre where we got to stroke a cheetah! Day times were largely free to loll around, swim in the pool or drink and eat your self silly. Already included were a 14-hour sojourn to The Kruger National Park and another tour, this time visiting South Africa's spectacular Blyde River canyon area.
I'm only really including this brief detail of the game lodge to show you just how SAGA starts to look like good value for money. We had obviously over-budgeted for spending money and ended up changing £400 in Rand back!
As an extra reward, and in deference to our 7-hour wait at Jo'burg on the return flight, we were handed vouchers to use an executive lounge where all food and drink (oh yes and wifi) were free!
JUST IN CASE YOU'VE DOZED OFF
For our £2000/head, we got,
Airport transfers, irrespective of distance to Heathrow
Scheduled flights to and from Johannesburg.
Scheduled flights to and from Phalaborwa
Transfers to and from lodge (about one hour each way)
Full board for one week at a private game lodge. The holiday is described as 'nine nights' but two of those are spent on a plane! Still, at least you do get a FULL week at the lodge.
Five evening and morning game drives in purpose-built open Land Rover Defenders. (You can pay for more)
A morning walk into the bush (with armed escort!)
Free bar (within reason)
Two long day excursions (more could be paid for)
Free access to quiet transit lounge with free refreshments.
Meet-and-greet service at all airports (not transits between terminals).
WOULD I GO AGAIN?
Yes, in fact we are, if only to see if the lions have had cubs yet! However, we're not going to add on a city tour at either end - that seems to look pretty tame once you've been out looking for leopard in the dark in an open car!
I have to say that we surprised even ourselves going on such an all-inclusive holiday, as we are more the 'book it all ourselves' types but realistically, with nowhere to go outside of the reserve, i.e. no browsing of restaurants possible, the stay at the lodge would have to be all-inclusive even if you booked it yourself.
A QUANTUM LEAP BACKWARDS
In the early days of 'home computing', the hardware around at the time, e.g. Sinclair Spectrum, BBC B, Acorn and such-like served a dual purpose. You could run other people's software on them, or, heaven forbid that you should do this today, write your own programmes. Of course, most people went for the line of least resistance and played 'tennis' or tried landing planes on a runway made up of dots and the need for a home computer that could be used for writing programmes just kind of faded away in most people's minds.
As the technology got 'smarter', we've become 'dumber'. By that I mean, most of us know what to do with the stuff as it relates to ourselves, but ask us to design the next generation of kit and you may just as well ask us to start our own Mars mission from scratch.
What's really lacking is a cheap simple solution that will get people back to the basics, and more to the point, engender the enthusiasm to become a hardware or software engineer at an early age. If it could do this and and be cheap, then so much the better.
PROBABLY THE CHEAPEST NEW PC IN THE WORLD
No, it's not made by Carlsberg, but this is where the Raspberry Pi comes in. With a basic motherboard costing around £29 including p+p, it wouldn't be too expensive an experiment to buy one and then see what you could do with it (I did!) which I suspect is the 'big idea'. Notably, this is probably the only motherboard I've seen in a long time bearing the legend 'Made in the UK'.
A lot of thought has gone into its design with a view to keeping it real, and affordable.
For example, much of what else it needs may well be lying fallow at home. For a start, there's the power supply - this uses the almost industry-standard micro-USB port and mains charger used by so many of today's smart phones and you may already have a spare, having sold your last phone to Mazumamobile.com who only want the phone, not the charger. (This may not always work, especially if you make full use of the USB ports on the Pi and you may find you need something with a bit more oomph, a tablet charger let's say)
You may even have a spare SD card from a defunct digital camera lying around, in which case, you've already most likely got what you need to run its operating system.
So that you don't need to add on an expensive monitor just to see what you are doing, they've thoughtfully added HDMI and analogue TV outputs, as it's more likely that someone on a budget would have access to a telly than a spare PC monitor - remember how the Spectrum output to a TV aerial socket? This is the 21st century version of that train of thought.
Its networking is taken care of by a full-size Ethernet socket, but you could of course use up a USB port by using a wi-fi dongle.
In appearance the Pi is really small - we're talking the size of a pack of cards here. It would appear that to drive down costs they've in effect used the motherboard of a competent but not state-of-the-art smartphone, but bulked it up with desktop-sized connectors. From what I can make out, it uses a Broadcom processor with 512mbytes of RAM, making it somewhat similar to my older HTC Wildfire in specification. The advantage of this chipset, apart from price is that it's eminently suited to streaming HD video provided you don't give it too much else to do.
Each of the four sides of the motherboard performs a different connection function.
At the western end (using the most common way of photographing it), we have a stack of two USB ports and the Ethernet socket. North we have the HDMI TV output, with the SD card socket and power input to the east. Along the south side we have the coaxial TV output and a 3.5mm stereo sound jack, neither of which you'd use if using a link to a digital TV instead.
Thus it's quite likely that to put this thing to any use, you'd have cabling coming out at ninety degrees to three of its four side - not the neatest solution in the world, but hobbyists aren't the sort to complain about this.
There's a wealth of after-market gear for the Pi, not least of which is a case of some sort, if only to protect the SD card from getting broken off.
Along with the case costing £4, just about the only 'new' part I bought for it was a compact wireless keyboard and mouse pad for £13 from Maplin. I already had some vague notion of using a Pi to add the other three 'TV catch-ups' to my TV which only carries BBC iPlayer and so a small keyboard combo was ideal for lounge use. It also had the advantage of only tying up one precious USB port for both keyboard and mouse use. Given what I said earlier about making sure the power adapter was up to the job, any further USB use beyond the occasional memory stick is likely to need a powered hub - back-up USB hard drives most certainly will!
Putting the motherboard into the case was easy, the latter being a two-part clam shell design. I bought a transparent one just 'cos I can with a child-like wish to see all the 'pretty lights' a-flickering! This was sufficiently well-cut to be a convincing fit. Then you slot in the full-size SD card (or, as in my case, a microSD card and adapter) which contains the software. Nowadays, Raspberry Pi software comes preloaded as 'NOOBS', which cleverly implies that everyone's a 'NOOB' here when in fact in means 'New Out of Box Software'. This is designed to boot straightaway to a menu of different software 'flavours'. They're mainly Linux based initially although there's a RISC-OS option for those with a nostalgic wish to revisit the system used by BBC Acorns.
Notably, from my point of view, there were two 'media centre' options, OpenElec and Raspbmc, the former being a much quicker load due to its smaller file size and so I chose this as I figured that it presented a much reduced 'overhead' memory-wise. Both of these were intended to be solely or at least mainly for the running of an open-source (i.e. free!) media client called XBMC. I'd spent the week prior to delivery getting this to work on my PC, and had succeeded in my 'TV catch-up' quest in all cases except '4On-Demand' which, to be fair seems to be eluding everyone using XBMC at the moment.
Once I'd chosen one of my preferred media centre clients, the rest was plain sailing except that, like my PC, I still couldn't get 4OnDemand to work. These 'add-ons' have to be installed manually as they do not appear on the official list of add-ons like YouTube does, and like Android 'apps' they depend on someone writing the damned things. In this case, I think Channel 4 has altered its TV streaming delivery method and the add-on hasn't yet caught up.
As a 'project' it was a bit of a let down, since it only took me about an hour to get it working how I wanted it, but bear in mind that I've opted for a specific job for it.
WHAT ELSE COULD IT DO?
A few things come to mind. Adding a large hard drive would enable it to become a home media server for the storage and playback of a wide range of media files.
Of course, you could also use it as a 'primer' to the black art of writing programmes.
There are a few expansion boards already around for the Pi, one of which contains a set of electrical relays designed to be able to trip other devices into (or out of) action, thus with internet access it could become a remote control hub for lighting, alarms and heating.
Another expansion board includes a camera, so as before the internet access could be brought into play to monitor remote locations.
I hesitate to say that the 'possibilities are endless' as my imagination can only stretch to three other things to do with it, but I'm sure some will grasp the opportunity with alacrity. There's a lively forum community so I guess it's only a matter of time before some ner....errrr.....enthusiast works out a way to get it to drive his car on his daily commute, or maybe just do his job for him!
So there you are, soaking up some winter sun in some Gulf state or other, and until the last day of your holiday, the uninviting feel of coming back to a cold house never enters your mind.
This of course, is why many people leave their central heating on over Christmas, whether they're at home of not. Without this gesture to profligacy and global suicide, you can spend a whole day waiting for the fabric of your house (especially one without cavity walls) to warm up, whilst you don sweaters, scarves and gloves. Either that or you ruin the whole effect of having saved a bit of 'lecky' during your absence by blasting the place with fan heaters for hours on end!
There does indeed seem to be a conventional and possibly incorrect wisdom that it's cheaper to leave your house heated whilst away, but surely, if something could be used to turn on your heating just one day in advance, the rest of the period whilst you're away could become a saving, the longer the holiday, the more the saving. OK, you wouldn't want internal temperatures to drop to that of the outside air, for fear of freezing your pipes.
Incidentally, I'd still turn my water supply off.
If only something existed that would keep your house from freezing and allowed you to switch on your heating from anywhere in the world, say a day in advance.
Well it does, and it was whilst I was in discussion with British Gas over a leaky drain claim that they cunningly sold me the solution to a problem I hadn't realised I'd got!
Going under the sexy name of 'Remote Heating ControlTM' - it must have cost them a fortune to get an agency to think that one up - it cost me £199 to have installed.
Bearing in mind that there's only one way gas prices are going, I expect that over its lifetime it will easily pay for itself, and anyway, its maintenance will be covered by my existing contract with British Gas. I'd like to point out that I don't use their gas, just their ability to fix boilers et al.
Access to central heating controls, and a means of removing the existing thermostat in favour of a wireless unit
Home broadband with a spare Ethernet socket on your router.
An internet router that's permanently on, and a spare mains plug-socket in the vicinity of the router to run the wireless link back to the thermostat/programmer.
They do not need to access your wi-fi but they do supply a booster plug if the signal fails to make it from programmer to modem.
This went surprisingly smoothly although I get the impression that it all depends on your existing installation.
In my case they only had to remove my hallway thermostat and replace it with the remote wireless receiver unit. Having agreed that my existing programmer just needed to be set permanently to 'All Day' (only for the central heating) means that there's very little to uninstall should I move and want to take the facility with me. This would only mean replacing the new receiver unit with the old thermostat - a mere three colour coded wires. It also means that I can override the controls should the electronics start playing up.
The only other physical part to the installation was the fitting of a modem unit by the router, needing a mains point and the Ethernet cable and socket that I mentioned before.
You can now re-site the programmer and thermostat as they are combined in the same unit and cordless. Hell, you could even walk round the house with it, making sure that the required temperature went with you! It would have been nice if the unit could have been fitted with a rear prop like a picture frame rather than a variety of screw holes, so it could be lodged on any shelf of your liking.
The rest was down to the setting up.
I find this is best done on a PC, rather than on the wireless programmer, and anything you enter via the BG web-site gets sent to your programmer in seconds anyway.
The BG confirmation e-mail gives you a link to the MyHome web-site, into which you log, and then are encouraged to change your password.
There's a little more hardware set-up to carry out, but unless anything goes wrong, this merely means getting the distant server to recognise a) your modem, and b) your wireless programmer, the latter showing the signal strength and the state on the internal battery.
It's very easy to set up your programmes, either on an advanced mode which allows for totally different ons/offs and temperatures per day, or you can take the line of least resistance and have just two programmes, one for weekdays and the other for weekends.
Either way, you can set different 'target temperatures', morning and evening, useful if more of your evening is spent sitting down. You can also set a minimum target in between sessions to stop any chance of the house freezing whilst the heating is off. In fact it will turn back on to protect the system from frost damage whatever else you've done.
Firstly, you can use the wireless programmer just as you've always done- the only difference being that you can put it where you like (not on top of a radiator please!).
Secondly, you can programme it from a full keyboard PC or Mac assuming internet access is present. This is by far your easiest option.
Thirdly, there's a 'smartphone' or tablet app called MyHome which allows for a more basic input, like being able to set a new minimum, turn the system on and off, and alter target temperatures.
Fourthly, you can even send it a text message for those times when abroad that are just too prohibitive in costs to use the internet. This is somewhat more limited but costs very little to do. You can start or stop your central heating, revert it to its normal programme of events or set a new target temperature.
PROS AND CONS
To offset the £199 cost, you need to be the kind of user who could usefully turn off their central heating whilst away in the colder months, but have always been scared to do so. For ourselves, we always go away for Christmas (and use someone else's heating!). Likewise, we take a lot of weekend breaks, quite a few of which are during the 'autumn half term to spring half term period', notably months when we'd still be likely to have the heating on.
Likewise, it would be useful for those that never know from one day to the next what time they're coming home in the evening.
This gadget does not give you any control over your hot water but the whole point is to come home to a warm house, even though it was cold the day (or hours) before.
Apparently, control over water heating may be possible in future.
If you've never been particularly happy with the positioning of the thermostat in your house, now's your chance to experiment.
FOOTNOTE: Now that we've been running it a few weeks, we've had occasions to sing the praises of its versatility and to curse its limitations in equal measiure. Firstly, the good news - because you can set a minimum temperature in between periods of "ON" - primarily designed to stop pipes freezing, you can also set a day-time temperature only slightly lower than the two 'daily timed' periods, so you only get a slight dip during the day (say down to 18C from 21C), which allows for less gas usage as you 'busy yourself' around the house.
The bad news? Well, with our old programmer facility, we could press an 'advance' button which would bring forward the next listed activity, i.e. "ON" if you come home earlier than planned or "OFF" if you go to bed earlier than expected. There doesn't seem to be an equivalent with the new set-up. Sure you can switch it to manual in between the two daily timed periods, but you have to remember to turn it off afterwards otherwise you'll have left it set to "Continuous" effectively. Off course, with a smartphone or tablet by your bed, you can switch it off from there!
There are a few ways of using the O2 network, not all of them by signing up for O2 itself. One is to use the Tesco service and another is Giffgaff.
I'll be frank and say that I'm not a prime user of any of these, but have always been grateful that O2 does seem to have good coverage when others, like Three, my main network for a contract lets me down, usually in rural areas. I've yet to be stranded in the middle of nowhere by my car, but you can bet your life that when it happens, the nearest Three mast will be 'over the hills and far away' purveying unlimited data to those who are within spitting distance of their transmitter.
IT'S THE GLOVE-BOX FOR YOU MY LAD!
Coming out of one contract and into another puts me in the fortunate position of having a spare phone; rather a nice one as it happens, a Samsung Galaxy S2. To press it back into service, my first two ports of call were:
a) Get a SIM from Giffgaff.
b) Put the SIM into your phone to see if it needs unlocking. If it's a Tesco or O2 phone, it won't, but chances are that if it was supplied by any other network, it will. If so...
c) Get the phone unlocked.
Unlocking was a doddle. Find someone on E-bay who provides an over-the-web service. Supply them with your IMEI number and current network, and by return of e-mail, get a new unlock code. You then 'provoke' an error message by putting the 'foreign' (Giffgaff in this case) SIM into the phone and when prompted, use the unlock code. No trudging the High Street on market day for those 'we do unlocking' signs on iffy-looking stalls that won't be there next week.
Inserting a Giffgaff SIM into your smartphone and having it register itself for first use prompts them to send you a new set of internet parameters (APN settings), after which, you're good to go, for voice, text and mobile web.
Incidentally, the SIM I received was the normal 'mini' SIM size, but came with a punch-out section to turn it into a micro SIM.
Now all you need is some call credit!
There are several ways to achieve this, one of which is to use the top-up number now added to your Contacts list. Another, and easier to control way, is to sign-up with the www.giffgaff.com web-site. This gives you access to a very useful list of facilities.
Obviously, you can top-up your phone, either by PAYG, where the credit lasts until you've used it up (assuming at least one chargeable call per 6 months otherwise it expires!), or you can buy 'Goodybags' with a one-month life. There are several of these to suit a wide range of needs, with differing amounts of data, call and text allowances.
However, if you go down the 'Goodybag' route, you need to consider a few things, the most obvious of which is that they expire whether you've used them or not, and they are about as much use as a chocolate teapot if you take one out, and then promptly go off on a four-week foreign holiday. Of course, a canny user will let one expire and take out a straightforward PAYG top-up just before such occasions, getting back into the monthly routine of Goodybags straightaway afterwards. It's a bit like the perennial argument as to whether an annual travel season ticket is actually worth it if you have six weeks holiday per year.
You can even have (and probably should have) both kinds of credit running at the same time. As most mobile users with a contract will know, there are certain things that are still outside of the normal monthly allowance, one evergreen example being the sending of MMS (e.g. text+picture) messages.
With a PAYG credit lurking in the background, this is how you do this with Giffgaff - they don't have any machinery for billing you more than the stated amount at the end of the month simply because you're billed in advance by buying a Goodybag. You do however get a reminder after every 'not included in Goodybag' use as a message pops up to tell you how much PAYG credit you have left. If you find being told this after every use annoying, you can turn it off back at the web-site on your own account page.
Under these 'hybrid' conditions with a Goodybag also running, the PAYG top-up can be expected to last yonks.
To be fair to Giffgaff, after accidentally signing up for a £15 Goodybag from my Nexus tablet, failing to scroll down far enough to spot the ordinary PAYG top-up section, they did advise me as the Goodybag expired that I'd be better off with a PAYG top-up at my current rate of use, i.e. practically nil!
HOORAY, NO OFF-SHORE HELP DESK!
(Subtitled "Boo-hoo, no on-shore one either")
Giffgaff is entirely run over the internet. Since you're expected to bring your own phone to the party, there's no need for a High Street presence either. However, given some people's experiences dealing with "Mike and Maria" in Mumbai, this may be a blessed relief. I've looked their site over and it seems pretty easy to get such things as a PUK code (if you've locked yourself out from your phone), and even obtain a PAC code for moving to another network whilst retaining your number. The lack of someone trying to talk you out of leaving could be a massive blessing. This of course presupposes that you have web-access at the same time as having a problem. You may want to consider that before you throw all your eggs into Giffgaff's basket.
The charges for a PAYG-only set-up or for going over your Goodybag allowance are as follows:-
Calls, texts, call forwarding and video calls to giffgaff Free
Calls to other UK mobiles, landlines (starting 01, 02, 03) 10p per minute
Texts to other UK mobiles and landlines 6p per text
Voice mail 8p per call
Mobile Internet (up to 20MB) 20p per day
Picture messages (MMS) to giffgaff and other mobiles (max 300KB) 16p per MMS
Video calls to other mobiles 50p per minute
Call forwarding to other mobiles and landlines 10p per minute
Free phone numbers (starting 0800, 0808 & 0500) Free
It's nice to see that Freefone Numbers really are free.
Beware - whilst 20p for 20mbytes of data per day sounds promising, going over the 20mbytes is going to set you back a further 20p for every extra mbyte that day!
Goodybags are defined by monthly price, set at £10, £12, £15 and £20. They all have unlimited texts and calls to other Giffgaff numbers, and vary to suit your needs. For instance the £10 jobby gives you 500 minutes but only 1gbyte of data, whereas the £12 tariff gets you less minutes (250) but unlimited data.
Once you shell out £20/month, you'll be getting a robust 1200 minutes of talk time with everything else unlimited!
If you can't bear the thought of running out, you can have your Goodybag renewed automatically, charged to a card of your choice. Personally,as I said before, I'd keep an eye on any upcoming holidays abroad and let them lapse until I got back but that would mean a bit more 'micro-management' on your part.
There's a viral feel to being a Giffgaff sign-up. Often you'll have been referred there by an existing customer. There's no need to be too impressed by your friend's altruism. They're getting £5 per sign-up assuming your new SIM is topped-up. Kikewise, you will too if you are successful at getting a friend sigend up. This along with other ways of earning points is added to your PAYG credit every month or so. Somehow I've already earned 20p-worth of 'kudos' for having been thanked on the community forum, which incidentally is a very good place to start. Giffgaff have their own moderators and experts patrolling the forum, there to help out newbies.
IS IT FOR YOU?
If you want what is tantamount to a contract that you can turn on and off at monthly intervals, then Giffgaff could be right up your street. Their basic PAYG prices are none too shabby either. All you'll miss is the biennial phone upgrade and talking to someone 6,000 miles away.
It does after all carry the weight of the O2 network behind it, so coverage is as good as any although some system outages have been reported by long-term users.
If you're wary of letting your mobile web costs mount out of control, there's a bit of self-help you could deploy. If you have a smart-phone, turn off the access. If it's anything like mine, it's still useable as soon as you come in reach of a 'friendly' wi-fi zone anyway. Likewise, don't use Google Maps for sat-nav purposes. A lot of people don't realise that it downloads more map (i.e. kerching - up go your data charges) as you move along. Better to get a dedicated sat-nav app that downloads all of its maps via wi-fi before you set off.
My Giffgaff phone is probably going to sit back in my car's glove-box only coming out for emergencies and once every 6 months to keep the credit alive. Despite that, I rate it pretty highly. Of course, I'll probably be blissfully unaware of those system crashes.
Despite what I'd previously thought the about mobile network Three, there's no denying that their 'all-you-can-eat' (AYCE from hereon in) data tariff is a big draw, and as their coverage in my area now seems to have stabilised (there's still no signal at The Plough but heh, they've got wi-fi and anyway, no-one gets a signal there!), I decided to give them another 'go', renewing my contract.
It helped when I found that my own particular area was now also in line for a speed upgrade (Three is all about data - even their speech and text goes via a single 3g frequency), this time to something called DC-HSPDA+, the dual channel version of the current fastest data protocol, on 3G at least, of transmitting data to a phone.
Three are calling this 'Ultrafast' or as they've advertised, presumably in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, '3.9G'.
With these speed increases already extant, and well on the way to being nearly as fast as 4G, as and when it rolls out, I decided to 'let them' sell me a new contract, creaming a few quid off the old one in the process by not going for the 'One Plan' which not only has AYCE but allows for tethering of a laptop, something I thought would be handy but never found a use for.
It does of course make sense to get a phone that can handle both DC-HSDPA+ and the long-awaited 4G, aka LTE (Long Term Evolution) should the latter appear during my contract period. To be fair to Three, they have already stated that they will NOT be charging more for 4G as and when they get it, which is more than can be said for EE - Everything Everywhere - who have stolen the lead over everyone else, but being in a monopoly position at the moment, see fit to crank up the charges quite outrageously for very meagre data allowances.
Ironically, Three have made a successful auction bid for a chunk of the 800mhz band perilously close to the Freeview TV tuning range* but promising, like TV, to carry further. This could mean that 4G is easier to get in rural areas than 3G or even 2G!
(*the reason why my Mum's been sent an aerial filter as she's near one of the masts taking part in a field trial)
AND SO TO THE PHONE
As I was quite happy with my Samsung Galaxy S2, in particular with its size, I didn't feel like getting a Galaxy S4 , HTC One or the Sony Xperia Z, all the current Android market leaders, but all rather too large for me and costing more per month than my last contract. Also if I wanted a tablet I'd have bought one - oh hang on, I already did!
Then up pops the new (as of April 2013) Sony Xperia SP on the scene, presumably designed to reel in those in my position who'd rather have a phone-sized phone, rather than a 'phablet' but still with a whole raft of nifty features.
As I say, this one's fully equipped for any data speed upgrades that are likely to be thrown at it in the life of this contract, which is about as close to future-proofing as you're likely to get these days.
The feel of the phone is excellent. Sony have done a great job of building in some quality feel, what with its lovely flat screen unimpaired by physical buttons - it doesn't even have an 'iPhone dent' - and the real satin aluminium band around the edges (Samsung please note - NOT plastic chrome). It's not the slimmest phone around and in fact it's a tad chunkier than the Galaxy S2 but it's all down to the curved back which sits nicely in my hand. It's also quite heavy, at around 156 grammes or about 5.6 ounces. This is down in part to the fact that the aluminium that shows is the tip of the iceberg, hiding an all-metal chassis, with only the flimsy plastic back to detract from the feel that it's hewn from a solid billet of alloy and therefore passes my own 'doesn't creak if you try twisting it' test. Thankfully, the back doesn't feel flimsy when clipped into position.
All physical control buttons are on the right hand edge, which eradicates the nuisance experienced with the Samsung, where, just when you want to turn it off with your right thumb, you find your index finger, which is wrapped around the opposite side altering the sound volume instead!
Unlike its big brother, the Xperia Z, it ISN'T waterproof, so don't mix them up!
However, this also means you can get the back off to fit both the SIM (now a micro-sized one) and the micro-SD card. Curiously you can't change the battery, which as far as I'm concerned makes this more of a rental proposition than an outright purchase as it gets towards the end of its contract and doesn't seem to be holding its charge like it used to, although there does appear to be a 'reset pinhole' for those inevitable but hopefully few 'lock-ups' where previously only removing the battery would have done.
The Android operating system isn't QUITE up to date, although it's still a Jelly Bean version (4.1.2). Going from experience, this may well get up-dated.
The 8-megapixel camera is pretty good, but isn't breaking any new ground here although it does have some good trick features, like 'smile recognition', which if it refused to take a picture until your subject smiled, is only one step away from a 'miserable git filter'! To be honest, I don't really mind. Its results are, well, better than adequate and until they make phones with real optical zoom lenses, I'm not really too interested. You've probably realised yourselves that the so-called digital zoom is exactly that - only 'so-called'. It's just a blower-up of the centre of the picture till you can't stand the fuzzy shot anymore.
One feature which immediately picks the Xperia SP out from the crowd is the 'light bar' across the bottom which acts as the notification for a long list of things; blue neon for a Facebook message, red for missed calls etc. The colour scheme is fully configurable. Coming from a phone with no notification LEDs at all, it's a real eye catcher, quite literally.
Unlike the flagship Xperia Z, this phone 'only' has a dual-core processor but it redeems itself by running at a respectable 1.7mhz and to be honest, as long as it scrolls in unison with my finger and allows me to flick my entire list of contacts from A through Z in one sweep, I've got no axes to grind.
Despite using exactly the same version of Android Jelly Bean (4.1.2), in the Sony iteration of it, you can no longer install apps to your SD card*, which given the machine's 8gbyte on-board storage capacity is a bit of a let down. True, some media files, movies for instance, can be enormous and can be stored on the SD card. In fact, the SD card more or less is limited to being media storage only. This was not the case with my Samsung Galaxy S2 which allowed me to save as much on-board memory as possible by installing lots of apps to the SD card.
(*I later found out why this was. The Sony already has 3 'sections' of in-built memory, the RAM, the on-board memory and what can best be described a simulated SD card, which is the limit that this version of Android can handle - the Samsung by contrast obviously had one less on-board section of memory. There is however a convenient 'one press' way of sending all media files to your actual SD card thereby saving a considerable amount of space if you're prone to storing movies.)
For some strange reason, the Sony's screen, made of Corning Gorilla Glass is even more of a finger-print magnet than previous phones I've had although on the plus side, the back is a matt finish instead of the piano-black glass used on its big brother 'Zed'. The ease with which the 4.6 inch (diagonal) screen smears gives it an almost grey finish, which is not helped by the fact that you have to be looking at it at almost precisely 90 degrees to see the true richness of colour.
CLEVER BITS ABOUND
There's now a 'switch' for taking a screen-grab, useful if trying to explain something to an app developer say. You access this via the on/off button just as you would when switching to 'airplane mode' and one click records a jpeg file of the last screen you were looking at.
Thank goodness for common sense. You actually get a real live button to press when taking photos with the camera which also shoots 720p HD video.
Voice calls are potentially clearer (well the bit you speak anyway) as the microphone on the back of the handset doubles as a noise canceller making background noise a lower proportion of the sound heard at the other end.
The Bluetooth is compatible with my car dashboard allowing me to make and take calls without taking my hands off the steering wheel, giving me one less thing I can be fined for as I 'tailgate' the car in front at 85mph, the owner of which is 'hogging' the middle lane! (Joking in case the Thought Police read this).
As battery life has always been a bugbear of smart-phones, Sony has put some extensive work into power management. For example, there's 'Stamina Mode' which turns off data transmission as soon as the screen goes blank, so no new 'app updates' can come in behind your back and at your expense leaving you more in control of data usage. These later versions of Android also let you set an artificial ceiling to your monthly data in case you are on a limited tariff. The phone gives you an estimated stand-by time, but this is strictly for a phone that's left on, but not used. Any kind of usage relegates this figure to 'piece of string' accuracy. You can leave it with network data switched off, so that it only uses recognised wi-fi hotspots. One of the benefits of it being a trifle 'chunky' is that it contains a generous 2300maH (2.3 Amp/Hours) battery, unlike the 1900maH jobs more common.
Of course, some 'clever bits' have.....
The NFC facility (Near Field Communication) seems to me to be a pretty pointless exercise except to those who fancy the idea of wafting their phone over some credit card payment device, hence my title,(*best said with a Geordie accent). True, it also allows for two devices so equipped to swap information, but since my other NFC device is my Nexus tablet, and it has already pulled down exactly the same Contacts list from my Google account there's little I'd want to swap. I suppose in years to come, we'll be seeing people sitting next to each other on the train having the phone equivalent of a 'Barbarella sex' moment but without the smoking fingertips. Oh well, at least it will keep them quiet for 5 minutes.
Something else that has 'norfolk enchants' as far as I'm concerned is the slew of ways in which Sony would like me to start spending money in their direction, starting with their own app market and then a music/movie download system all of their own. I don't mind that the music player is called 'Walkman', that's to be expected. Annoyingly, these 'system apps' placed there by the maker are seldom delete-able without doing something to the phone that would render the warranty invalid, i.e. the process of 'rooting'.
You can make phone calls and send texts with it, I nearly forgot.
I got mine with no up-front payment for £26/month over 24 months, on a contract giving a Billy-Nomates like me way more minutes and texts than I'll EVER need plus that unlimited data, with no increase once it goes '4G'. I noticed that Three had shown it as being a £379 item but in reality even the Sony web-site has it for a tad less, and via e-bay you can source an unlocked de-branded version for around £250 and be ready to roll once you get the 'micro' version of your SIM card, which either involves getting another from your network provider or buying a guillotine tailored for such purposes (yes honest) for less than a tenner.
No, not a treatise on the pros and cons of marrying a divorcé, although if the truth be known, we both did (26 years ago)!
I'll be honest, this second-hand Samsung Galaxy S2 was an impulse bid on e-bay - I already had a perfectly adequate HTC Desire S on a contract not coming to an end for several months. Fess-up time; I was just bored with it, and wanted something more modern that would tide me over well into the next contract period, allowing me the economy of changing to a 'SIM-only' contract which only locks you in for one year, not two, or maybe even PAYG.
To offset the £170 paid for a good condition example (although the previous owner's definition of 'excellent' was clearly not mine), I sold the Desire to Mazumamobile for about £35. OK, I could have got more but that would involve dealing with the 'Great British Public', answering their queries, running the gauntlet of being defrauded by them and having to post everything including chargers, leads etc. Mazuma only wants the phone and they're post-free. I'm building quite a stock of chargers!
The Galaxy S2 turned up, mercifully with a pristine screen, but someone had been removing the somewhat flimsy back with something other than a fingernail, if the biro skid marks and cracks were anything to go by. Fortunately, this phone has a whole wealth of 'after-market' spares, and a new back cost me around £1.95 on e-Bay. Even if you crack the outer glass of the screen, you can get it fixed for about £12 thanks to yet another e-Bay seller. A non-working touch screen is another matter though - kiss £65 goodbye.
Given the number of 'cracked screen but working' versions going for around £50 on e-Bay, I'm tempted to dabble in a little 'seller refurbished' trade myself, especially now that I know the price of fitting a new screen, and know how upgrade them to the latest 'generic' version of the latest Jelly Bean OS, with no annoying network logos and 'bloatware'. Unlocking is also a cheap 'via e-mail' operation.
It having already led a charmed life, I covered the screen with a good quality (i.e. not one of the 10 for £1.99 jobs) screen protector and treated the white case of the phone to a black 'gel' case which leads a lot of people to ask me what my phone is; the overall effect being rather smart and unique to my eye.
If I'm brutally honest, the beauty is only skin-deep when it comes to build quality. The chrome bumper strip that forms the decorative perimeter of the phone is not metal and can soon lose some of its shine. Fortunately, the gel cover hides this but for those that like to keep their phones 'au naturel' it's a consideration. The plasticky nature of the build, common to most Samsungs does make this fairly large phone (it's got a 4.3" screen) quite light and slim. To be fair, to doesn't 'creak' if you attempt to twist it!
Despite being 'two models out of date' at the time of writing, this phone still has many advanced features which should see it through till 4G is universal. Its screen is a beauty, using Samsung's so-called Super AmoLED Plus technology to provide stunning colour.
The mere fact that you can actually remove the back, change batteries and also add further memory storage all without reference to a store, is streets ahead in the convenience stakes compared to some phones 'i' could mention.
Its processor is at least 50% faster than the HTC Desire, itself no slouch, and its 8mp camera is a little beauty, if only in daylight. I've yet to be impressed by those LED flash shots that seem to adorn 50% of the profile pages on Facebook!
It's difficult to separate out unique features of a smart phone from those of the operating system. For example, it wasn't until later versions of Android than 'Éclair' that the facility to become a 'wi-fi hotspot' appeared. Therefore what one smart phone running Jelly Bean can do is much like any other.
Well you can almost guess in advance that I'm 'underwhelmed' by the battery life but this isn't my first smart phone, nor will it be my last, and I've gotten used to charging it every day come Hull or Highwater.
Despite the removable back, being able to change the battery is not a convenient solution as you can really only charge these IN the phone, and then swap them over. What I have done is buy a neat little external back-up battery which you charge using the same charger, and plug into the phone later to give it a boost charge. It doesn't seem capable of doing a full charge on a fully-depleted phone as I rather suspect that once both have equalled out to 50% charged, nothing else happens. However it's a handy little bit of kit that could dig you out of many a hole for £4.99.
Oh yes, Samsung, I've bone to pick with you. Why is it that on every phone of yours I've used, pressing the on-off button with my thumb to save screen usage involves your other fingers on the other side of the phone altering the volume slider, over-riding the fact that you're trying to turn the bloody thing off? Please stop putting them opposite each other.
Yes, and while I'm Samsung-bashing, an LED that indicates when you've received a message or missed a call wouldn't go amiss. It's even harder doming from an HTC, which had one! Fortunately, there's an 'app' called NoLED that addresses this problem by over-riding the screen time-out, substituting it for a powered-up but black screen (almost the same battery drain), which then has a series of programmable icons which float around alerting you to missed calls, texts, WhatsApp and Facebook messages and the like.
The processor is a fast-ish 1.2 Ghz Dual-Core job, OK, not quad-core like some of its latest competition.
It doesn't 'do' NFC - Near Field Communication which means that you won't be waving your phone over a credit card reader any day soon. Well you could try, if you like feeling foolish in a Tommy Cooper kinda way.
It doesn't 'do' 4G, but given that the 'wave-band' auctions are only just over and trials to prevent a 's***-storm' of discontent from Freeview users when they realise that the 800mhz band is perilously close to TV frequencies are only now under way, I'm not rushing into a 4G phone just yet, given that it'll be worn out by the time I can get 4G anyway. Hell, I'm happy if I've got a signal at home for more than an hour at a time - one step at a time Chris!
4G is not also known as LTE for nothing - it stands for Long Term Evolution.
Only 'EE', Everything Everywhere, the T-mobile/Orange consortium have been given permission to run 4G on their existing frequencies.
It does however 'do' 3G admirably, being able to handle HSPA+ whenever it rears its head over the parapet, giving a theoretical broadband top speed of 21MBps.
I've had a slight problem with Bluetooth 'dropout' since upgrading to JellyBean (or was it a coincidence?). After a while when mated to my car dashboard, I lose my ability to make hands-free calls. However, it seems that if I remember to turn off 'wi-fi', the problem goes away. Maybe it was happening every time I drove past an available wi-fi network, and in the case of 3G data at least, wi-fi takes preference on the assumption that it's better and cheaper to use.
Even my version came with 16gbytes of storage built in, which I quickly upgraded with a further 32gb thanks to the microSD card slot.
It use the more usual '*mini-SIM' card, unlike some of the latest offerings that need either 'micro- or nano-SIM' cards, each with progressively less plastic surrounding them, thus you can most likely just swap an existing SIM without having to get another one of the correct size or buy a customised guillotine (yes, honest!).
(*Remember when the full sized SIM was the same dimensions as a credit card?)
Oh yes, and I've had more than one occasion to be glad of the ability to remove the battery, as it's a very effective way of breaking out of a lock-up without waiting for the battery to expire.
The Galaxy S2 is still a contender with many networks pushing quite tasty deals to get rid of old 'new' stock before they find themselves with a phone that's 'two updates out of date'! It tends to indicate that it was class-leader at the time.
Mine may well have been 18 months old when I got it but I love it, apart from its not being new! The fact that it seems to have survived moderate to heavy use, with only a bit of plastic chrome worn off speaks reams I guess. It's easy and cheap to titivate your S2, and even change it from white to black and vice versa - yes even whole cases are available and if I could be arsed I'd do this just to get rid of that tatty chrome on one corner. However, a gel case hides it, is useful in its own right and is a darned sight cheaper!
It's also comforting to know that at this late stage in the phone's 'shelf life', Samsung is still prepared to stand by what must have been buyers of a state-of-the-art phone two years back and let them have access to the latest operating system, either via their UK network or through a utility called Kies. Nerd as I am, I used neither, as these two solutions would still have given me a version knobbled by my current network, but I got there in the end!
There are many reasons for buying a camera, but here's an unusual one. My daughter, who was visiting me for the week over Easter tripped and fell, banging her Nikon DSLR on the ground which resulted in it only being partially operational.
No, I didn't buy her a new one, before anyone asks. However, the fact that she was about to get paid for her very first wedding shoot in four days time did indeed lend a certain urgency to the solution.
As she is the one to fall over with an expensive camera only in her hand, not round her neck, I didn't really feel like doing anything except passing on my Nikon D90 to her, and getting its replacement for myself. After all, she'll probably inherit the damned thing anyway!
Thus I find myself the unexpected owner of a brand new Nikon D7000 with 18-105mm zoom lens, the latter being the 35mm film-camera equivalent of a 28-150mm zoom. This camera still has an APS-C sized sensor, not a full frame "35mm" job, so lenses take on different values for those of us brought up on 35mm SLRs.
It helped that I had already agreed to pay my daughter a monthly instalment towards her upcoming nuptials (that's her own, not as a photographer!), so all I've really done is pay her one month less, and paid about £189 over the top for the privilege of being the owner of a new camera, albeit, one that isn't that much different to the D90.
WHY NOT JUST ANOTHER D90?
I was surprised to find that even the D90 is still available as 'new, but old stock', whereas the D7000 is definitely still in Nikon's catalogue despite having been sidelined by the D7100 already. It also had the advantage of figuring in their "Spring 2013 Cashback" campaign, the D7000 attracting a £100 bonus in the shape of a pre-loaded Visa Debit card. All in all that brought the net cost via Amazon.co.uk down to £689 and I get to claim a second year's warranty. A new D90 would have cost me about £529.
It should be noted that, at launch, the D7000 camera body alone cost around £1000, so two years down the line, being able to buy it WITH lens for £689 has to be regarded as something of a bargain, as long as you don't mind its demise as a current model no doubt being imminent.
THE DIFFERENCE IS IN THE DETAIL
Compared to the D90, outwardly, there's not much to report. It's more or less the same dimensions and appearance and great for anyone trying to sneak the 'upgrade' in under their spouse's radar unless of course you have a joint credit card account. However, the D7000 benefits from a partially die-cast metal casing as opposed to being all plastic. I wouldn't swear to it, but it's a tad heavier as a result. The rear screen is about the same size and still doesn't swivel - ironically you have to opt for a cheaper Nikon to get that facility.
Oddly, some of the controls that used to be 'menu driven' on the D90 are now ' twiddly knobs' in their own right and some of the 'knob-controlled' features of the D90 have been driven underground to being menu-driven on screen.
I'll give you an example. On the D90, you had to scroll through an LCD menu to choose 'single shot, continuous shooting (fast and slow), timer, remote control'. On the D7000, these are in the form of a physical dial on the left, under and concentric to the main function dial. In doing so, they've added 'Quiet' to the list. This somehow slows down the mirror return which lowers the pitch from a frenetic clatter to two minor somewhat more bass-like thumps.
On the other hand, the main function dial, whilst retaining the usual M, A, S, P*, Auto, Auto (No Flash) options, only has SCENE and curiously U1 and U2 as its 'artistic options'. Gone are the little images of a flower close-up or an athlete breaking out of the starting blocks to depict Macro and Action modes. Choosing SCENE now means a trip to the rear screen where a whole new (and much longer) list of scenes is available. Predictably, this includes such niceties as 'night portrait', 'night landscape', 'child' (keep still you little bu****r), and curiously, 'food'. All it needs is the addition of Optical Character Recognition for it to be able to spot words in your Alphabetti Spaghetti! After all, it can spot faces, even sideways on.
(*Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter-Priority, Programmed)
U1 and U2 are an interesting new addition, although I guessed ahead what they were, thanks to my Fuji X10 having C1 and C2 options, these being for the set-up of two custom settings, for example, high film speed and incandescent light balance for candid indoor shots without flash. Thus you only have to trawl through the menus once to set these up.
Having mastered the few controls that are different, it really comes down to spotting the differences in the nitty-gritty of the technical specification.
Notably, there's that 'all-important' definition, i.e. how many mega-pixels it has. Compared to the D90's 12+, this one weighs in at 16+ and frankly I'm glad they didn't try to cram more into the APS-C sensor, as smaller pixels mean less light sensitivity. To cope with the new-found file sizes generated, the D7000 now carries slots for two SD cards, not one.
These can be configured in several ways.
1. Use Card 2 merely as an overflow to Card 1.
2. Shoot video to card 2, pictures to Card 1.
3. Shoot RAW full definition shots to card 1, which their equivalent JPEG shot to Card 2.
4. Or just simply, only insert one card at a time, giving someone else the job of running off a few thumbprint images on a PC, which could prove very useful at weddings (I hope my daughter's taking notes)
My own preference is '3.'
Despite the extra (and smaller) mega-pixels, the D7000 is actually better at shooting in low light thanks to some new skulduggery at the processor end, and film speeds hitherto fraught with 'noise' are now main stream options, more or less obviating the need for flash in many more situations than you'd have first thought feasible without a tripod.
Film speed range now goes from ISO 100 up to ISO 6400 in the normal range, and for those special 'black cat in coal mine' moments, can even be pushed to ISO 25600 although the latter would most definitely be 'noisy'.
The shutter speed range goes from 30 seconds to 1/8000th of a second.
The maximum aperture sizes are dictated by the lens fitted, and the 'kit lens' supplied to me has a variable maximum depending on zoom range from f3.5 to f5.6. Not earth-shatteringly large but you come to expect this with zooms. My old Nikon F's f1.4 Nikkor lens (yes it still fits) gives the impression that the sun just went super-nova through the viewfinder if the extra brightness is anything to go by. Nikon, obviously would like you to think that only their lenses are suitable, making a big play of the fact that they must be 'CPU lenses' to be fully functional, although other non-CPU lenses (like my f1.4 Nikkor) work after a fashion. Luckily, the top independent makers like Tamron know how to make CPU-type lenses for Nikon, so you're not stuck with only one brand, not that there's anything wrong with Nikon's own lenses, far from it. Nikon's current range of lenses all have 'VR', Vibration Reduction, supposedly allowing hand-held shots at rather lower shutter speeds than were previously advisable, but then so do the Tamron offerings. Ironically, it was the pocket camera and the camcorder that first started to sport this facility.
The big development carried over from the D90 was the 'LiveView screen', i.e. the ability to operate the camera like a damned-great pocket job, using the rear screen as the viewfinder. LiveView raises the mirror for the duration so you can 'see' what the sensor is seeing. In my experience, this slows things down somewhat as the auto-focus now tries to find faces, and delays firing of the camera. To my mind you buy a DSLR so you can look through the optical viewfinder at a crystal-clear view, not to hold a large camera myopically at arm's length. However, one instance where you MUST use LiveView is when shooting video, after all you can't expect the camera to shoot 30 frames per second with the mirror rattling like a Gatling gun (rattling, Gatling, see what I did there?). The D90 could do this too, but only at 720p definition, not the 'full HD' definition of the D7000's 1080p.
You can view these straight to TV via the mini-HDMI port or transfer the video files to a PC for processing and turning into DVDs, what-have-you, and thanks to the twin SD card facility, you could even shoot them to Card 2, remove it and read movie files on a PC without preventing normal picture-taking.
Another notable addition, buried deep within the confines of the set-up menu, is the ability to action a timed sequence of shots, making time-lapse photography a built-in possibility. Great for standing at North Cape in summer and tracking the 'midnight sun' - just don't forget to bring a tripod!
Internal dust has always been a threat to cameras with interchangeable lenses, DSLRs more so than film SLRS, as the latter tended to be only affected for a frame or so before the film advance mechanism dislodged any detritus. With a DSLR, the dust on the sensor is there till you shift it, able to affect a whole raft of photos. If you discover this too late, you can take a 'dust reference shot' against a white background, which makes processing the affected photos a lot easier. I haven't tried it as I believe it needs a full-blown version of Photoshop and photos shot purely in their RAW format.
Better still is to avoid changing lenses in the middle of deserts or on a tour of a cement works, and to use the vibrating sensor-cleaner which shifts dust to where it can be removed without the risk of a catastrophic finger print on the sensor itself.
To a certain extent, picture quality is more about the lens than the camera body, and as this uses the self-same lens as did the D90, the differences would be difficult to spot, except that its low-light abilities are somewhat enhanced by comparison. I've yet to find one shot where using a flash was absolutely necessary, except as 'fill-in' on a sunny day (a what, Chris?).
Not one for the faint-hearted, faint-walleted or indeed weak-necked. However, there's no need to be put off by the alarming array of menu options. You can still turn out superb pictures just by sticking to the programme mode until conditions dictate otherwise. Whether you'd want to carry the 300+ page manual with you is another matter! My experience of the official Nikon offerings is that they are adequate at telling you how to change options, but lousy at telling you WHY you'd want to. I'd buy an independent field guide if I were you.
Whilst not quite a 'pro' camera, after all, real pros buy DSLRs with a full-sized sensor, i.e. the same size as a 35mm film negative, it does share the same excellent range of lenses, some of the build quality and probably 90% of the tweaks and wizz-bangs of the upper echelons of the Nikon range. The ability to back up to a second SD card takes it that bit closer, and I'm sure my daughter has her eyes on it for her wedding photography venture. She'll have to wait till the next time she trips over carrying the D90 at the very soonest!
UPDATE: 30/01/13 - I very nearly got rid of this service during the first free month and it's no thanks to Netflix themselves that I didn't. I'll explain why later.
I've never been a fan of subscription TV, well, 'subscription anything' for that matter. Unless something is markedly cheaper as a monthly contract, it's PAYG for me every time.
I certainly don't have any need for lavish Sky or Virgin TV contracts; generally speaking, Freeview with a two-tuner recorder and access via my new 'smart' TV to an on-demand service like BBC iPlayer have been plenty for me.
There's just one exception; TV serial dramas that after a couple of seasons, transfer to Sky. In the past these have cost us a considerable amount in buying the boxed-set DVDs just to 'give closure' to the series.
It was only after my wife bought the first three seasons of 'Breaking Bad' on DVD, a series that was clearly never coming to non-subscription TV any day soon, that I started to investigate what the various on-demand services could offer us.
My first toe dipped into these waters was with 'Blinkbox', a service run by Tescos. I'm still a member of Blinkbox, and even have some of their £5 free trial credit left. The major advantage of Blinkbox is that if you don't use it, it costs nothing being strictly PAYG. Its major downside was that it didn't appear to have much of interest to me, hence the fact that I haven't even spent the first free credit!
Somewhat more of interest to us was Netflix, the acid test being 'did it have seasons 4 and 5 of Breaking Bad?'
The catch to Netflix is that it's a monthly fee of £5.99, but to be fair, you only have to watch about three items in the same month for Blinkbox to become dearer than this. However, NF very fairly offers you a free month to try it out, leaving you to cancel the next debit before it happens. Refreshingly there's no contract period beyond remembering to cancel before the next payment is due, so the most you stand to waste is £5.99. No early-opt-out fees, nothing, nada, nichts.
The free month has a double use, to my way of thinking.
a) You get to see if it's going to be of any use to you, content-wise and
b) You get to find out if your broadband set-up is good enough. Most people who've tried something like iPlayer will already know this. However, Netflix make a big fanfare of the fact that their movies and other programmes are transmitted over the internet in HD format with 5.1 channel surround sound. If you are in any doubt, try the HD option on iPlayer to see if your kit is up to it. Unlike iPlayer, there is no fall-back choice of standard definition to take the strain off your broadband.
Later on, I'll describe the problems that this has given me.
Even though I fully intended to use my TV for the programme streaming itself, I still used my PC to sign up for the simple reason that it gives me a proper keyboard to enter the details. Then, when it came to connecting via the TV for the first time (and first time only), I only had to input my agreed ID and password the once, and haven't been asked since.
Whilst you CAN type on a 'smart' TV, it's none too smart and quite laborious! I have also downloaded the Android 'app' version to my Google Nexus tablet, although you can only use one bit of kit at a time*. To be honest, apart from having confirmed that this works, it won't be getting much use as my main aim was to provide more content on my TV, not watch The IT Crowd in bed!
(*It goes without saying that there's an iPhone app too, and the possibility of using the service on games consoles - PS3, Wii, Xbox, Apple TV etc)
Once you've signed up, all you need to do during your evaluation period is to diary the date for cancellation, should it prove necessary.
I'm going to deal here with how it presents itself to me, on my LG Smart TV, which has an 'app' for it. No doubt this is very similar on equivalent Samsung TVs, tablets, and games machines.
Booting up the app from my TV gives me, initially a log-on screen. You only have to do this once. After that, it boots straight to screen showing my most recently watched programmes - useful if you're part-way through watching a series. Below this, you can scroll to such categories as 'Top 10 Movies', 'Films Popular on Netflix' which ironically seems to be anything but those I'd actually want to watch, 'Popular on Facebook' - why the hell I'd want to know this is anyone's guess.
However, you are not stuck with their suggestions, useful though some of them might be. Pressing the Yellow Button gives you access to a browser, where movies and TV programmes are split by genre. If you really can't guess what the genre would be, pressing the Green Button gives you an alphabetic search facility.
Right, so you've found what you want, selected it, and pressed the OK button to start it running. There'll be a brief pause to allow for the building up of a suitable-sized buffer (as with iPlayer) and then the movie/programme commences.
First impressions are that picture quality is near-as-damn-it the same as live TV, including the HD versions. Apparently, there's even provision for Netflix to step down the quality from HD to SD should continuity be compromised by line speed and buffering problems. In my experience this doesn't work................
Yes, a few, which were sufficient to make me give up the subscription unless I found the solution. Don't get me wrong, I was happy with the selection of programmes for £5.99 a month - after all this was never intended to do cinema box-offices out of business.
It's the technology as it's available to me that was the problem.
There were two main difficulties that I didn't feel I'd ever get to the bottom of.
The first was 'buffering'. You may have come across this whilst trying to watch iPlayer. Part-way through your intended viewing, the screen goes bank and a buffering 'thermometer' appears. This wouldn't have been so bad if it ever reached 100% and got on with playing the movie, but on several occasion, all with HD movies, not shorter TV programmes, it locked-up so I've had to re-boot the application. Admittedly, it takes me to where I left off, but that's not the point. If I'm paying, however little, to watch a movie, I want it to be unbroken.
Those in the know will immediately question my own set-up.
Is my broadband fast enough? Well it frequently tops 65 mbytes when tested, so I don't see it dropping below 8 meg which even then should be more than enough even for HD movies. Cable broadband has always tended to be 'what it says on the tin', rather than any of that 'up to xyz mbytes, subject to distance from the exchange' lark.
What about my connection between TV and router? I've eradicated the uncertainty of wi-fi in a brick-built house, including the partition walls, by creating a direct Ethernet connection to my router, which in any case is a shed-load faster than the broadband itself.
As far as I coud see, I'd erased all local problems, at least those I had some control over. There was still a remote possibility that it was the LG TV's Netflix application that maybe couldn't handle the streaming, but then, that's what it was designed to do, and I didn't want to watch on a PC or tablet just to prove the theory. If it doesn't work on my telly, I don't want it.
I don't suppose they'd ever admit it, but it could also have been a capacity problem on the Netflix server.
The second less annoying fault was the loss of lip-sync, either permanently or momentarily. It's never much, but enough to get annoying. I can actually adjust it on my set, but it then needs changing back just as frequently. Pausing playback sometimes cures it, but as I said before, I don't pay just to have to keep fiddling with it.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
Well, I'm not the biggest techno-phobe in the country, and I didn't mind doing some further digging around on this if was going to help me keep the service, which, technical hitches apart, is good value for money.
If I couldn't, I'd definitely be giving it the heave-ho. Changing the TV was not an option - I only just bought it!
The first free month is a boon, and in my case has saved me making a mistake. It's enabled me to save about £24 on boxed sets of Breaking Bad Seasons 4 and 5, the watching of which did sometimes suffer from the aforementioned problems. It has allowed me to have a laugh at the entire 'IT Crowd' series (all of which went without a hitch - SD recordings I'll bet) and proved to me that on-demand TV may well be here to stay, but only if it works!
In its working state, Netflix represents good value for money and isn't going to break the bank at £5.99 a month.
THE FIX, AND WHY I'M STILL ONLY GIVING IT 4 STARS
The application on my TV was exactly that, a means of browsing, choosing and playing movies and other programmes. The application for Android (and probably for iPhone - I wouldn't know) is no doubt the same. However, in a last ditch attempt to find out if there was any hint at the web-site, I logged in and went to the My Account section, where I noted at sub-menu for picture quality. Here, I was able to choose between Good, Better and Best picture quality. Having been using a TV app version, this had never been set. The site mentions this ability in the light of some people having download maxima to worry about. Strangely enough, I was able to set mine to Best (described as 1gbyte per hour, or 2.3 gbytes per hour for HD content and both buffering and lip-sync problems have gone away.
I can only summise that a combination of having no parameter set and my 60 meg broadband was allowing Netflix to swamp my TV's streaming abilities, causing to to lock up whilst buffering. Now that I've got some kind of flow control in place, all is well and I'll be keeping the service on.
So why am I p*****d at Netflix? Because, nowhere on the TV or Android application is there even a note that further settings can be adjusted at the www.netflix.com web-site, that's why!
IT'S (PROBABLY NOT) FOR YOU!
I wouldn't regard myself as a lottery 'player' as such, but I am in a syndicate of about 12 people, called The Skyport (Heathrow) Exchange Lottery Syndicate. However, 15 years down the line, I'm not sure if a single one of us still works for BT!
We've had occasional small wins, the highest being £50 if I recall, but split 12 ways all they have served to do is make next month's 'subs' cheaper.
Realistically, we all know that we have next to no chance of winning the big one, 'el Gordo' as the Spanish call it.
Over the years, at £10/month each, I have paid about £1500 into the fund after deducting small winnings. Common sense would dictate that cutting my losses and getting the hell out of Dodge City is what I should do
The trouble with being in a syndicate, is that there's always that little devil on your shoulder telling you that if you cut your losses and leave, they'll all win the next week, and get the booty shared 11 ways instead!
Syndicates might sound a good idea, and in fact in many respects they are, as there's usually one person who's prepared to check the results, saving 11 others the drudge of being around to do so. The results are then circulated to us via e-mail on an Excel spreadsheet.
However, if you don't want that little devil on your shoulder, buy your own tickets so you can back out any time you like, and by paying no more attention to the results, you'll have no regrets, and like giving up smoking you can start banking the 'dividends' of cutting your own running costs!
OK, SO YOU'RE GOING TO PRESS ON WITH IT, JUST IN CASE....
Alright I'll admit it - there's every reason to have at least a vague plan of what you'd do with the money if a 'big one' comes up.
Let's say you win a million. Think you've got it made? Never have to work again?
A million in hand sounds like a lot, but here's a sobering thought. I retired 10 years early from BT during their big redundancy drives. I have now drawn my indexed pension for 13 years despite having only just passed the age for normal retirement. In real inflation-linked terms, I have now had £250,000 from their pension fund, and God-willing would like to think I'd get another £500,000 before shuffling off this mortal coil. Can I think of anything outrageous that I've done with my 'quarter mill' so far? Nope - it just kinda got spent on living.
So basically, £1,000,000 is really a modest salary like my current pension for about 40 years. OK, I'D never have to work again, but I already don't have to! Given today's pitiful interest rates, it'd be difficult to see that nest-egg grow to any large extent. Back in the good old days of 7% interest, you'd never have to spend the capital to get £70,000 a year, and by living below those means (not difficult unless you develop dangerous tastes - or an expensive spouse!), you could have even more next year.
Another way to look at it is that £1,000,000 'only' buys you a nice house in a nice area.
After that you're on your own when it comes to running it.
I've got colleagues living in Richmond-upon-Thames sitting on a million in equity merely by owning a large 'semi' for 30 years, looking to down-size just to create a pension pot, so I know these figures are about right.
Whether you choose the 'never work again' scenario depends on several factors, one being how much you like your job, and can you think of what else you'd like to do with your life?
So if I won £1,000,000 what would I do?
HERE'S A LIST OF WHAT I WOULDN'T DO FIRST.
a) Move away. Great idea (not). Leave all your friends behind as you move up the housing ladder.
b) Move away to the country - even worse than (a). You might as well nail my coffin down now. I have always felt that moving somewhere that will make you totally car-dependant in later life is a bad move. We none of us know what's in store for us health-wise and being forced to hang up the car keys in your rural idyll would effectively leave you under house-arrest. I'm a devil when it comes to watching 'Escape to the Country'. I'm sitting there shouting 'No way man, it's got a central heating oil tank - think!! Oil prices!! Where's the nearest bus stop/railway station?
Buy a 'super' car - hate 'em. OK, my wife bought me 5 laps of Silverstone in a Ferrari for Christmas? Still never mind, I'll enjoy the drive and they can't make me buy one.
Give up my present job - yes, I still have a little one that keeps me in 'guilt-free' beer money and fit (what a combination!), and I'm even in the pension scheme.
Most of all I wouldn't do anything sudden!
SO WHAT WOULD I DO?
My own idea would be to buy one of those £1,000,000 houses somewhere nice, but still local, (Richmond does in fact come to mind as I currently live in Hounslow, just a few miles but an entire culture-shock away.) I wouldn't have spent the lot because in effect I then get back what my existing house sold for to add to my existing 'rainy day' savings. Looking to the future, I'd make the house as eco-friendly as is possible - let's face it, there's only one way that electricity and gas prices are going to go. Planning laws permitting*, I'd fit photo-voltaic tiles to reduce my electricity consumption and earn from generating to The Grid, and probably fit a ground-source heat pump assuming the garden is big enough. These are capable of producing what is effectively 4 kilowatts of heat for every one kilowatt of electricity used.
(* If they prevented it, I'd find somewhere else)
In fact I'd do everything in my power to prevent myself from becoming 'asset-rich, income-poor' by spending on 'infrastructure projects' to minimise the house's future running costs. Many of these gadgets aren't yet regarded as cost-effective by many experts, but with a wad of cash and more years behind me than there are ahead, I'm none too bothered.
I'd also use my nest egg to make sure that car replacement is never a problem. I don't have expensive tastes in cars, but I do like the assurance of knowing it's new and/or under warranty. A mug's game no doubt, but if you've got it flaunt it - on a new Kia Picanto! BMW dealers - don't bother even trying to find out where I live.
Realistically, I could do most of this now, as long as I forget about the minor detail of moving to Richmond, so maybe it's just as well I haven't won anything. I'd only get cheesed off with posh neighbours anyway!
"Of course, we all know how he could afford to move here don't we? He won the L*****y!" I think the lack of a 4x4 on the drive, so important in the Richmond Alps when Arabella needs ferrying to her tap classes after her Cantonese crammer sessions, would be enough of a clue
In my now fairly lengthy experience of earning money, earning more money, yet more money and now a lot less money, I can safely say that earning more never made me any happier - just able to surround myself with more 'things'. Looking at my opinions, it would appear that this process has yet to stop! Old habits die hard.
Having ENOUGH is what counts, as not having enough is what creates family tensions that didn't have to be there.
I guess in a financial sense, I've been lucky. I've never had anyone standing behind me telling me I need a promotion because we need a bigger house, so I've never needed to rise to my 'level of incompetence'.
I've only had one child who notably didn't need putting through University at my expense and my second wife is a senior teacher who has yet to retire.
Come to think of it, I've just talked myself out of moving somewhere posh, so maybe I should come out of the syndicate in case a win ruins everything!