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Member since: 22.02.2010

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    • Henry HVR200 / Vacuum Cleaner / 74 Readings / 67 Ratings
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      12.10.2010 01:41
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      This is simply the finest vacuum cleaner you could ever ask for.

      When you consider that a vacuum cleaner has only one function to perform - sucking up dirt - you'd think that the manufacturers of these appliances would have reached a plateau by now, beyond which no further improvements could ever be made to this solitary physical action. Unfortunately it seems that more time is spent on advertising the latest obnoxious space-station of a Dyson than is spent actually making the things perform better than previous models. Or so I thought.

      I had just about given up on the idea of finding a cleaner that could both perform consistently and not require a repair every six months, until I remembered the sinister cow-eyed face of the Numatic Henry. I recalled seeing this electronic representation of The Bad Seed in pretty much every place I ever worked. Factories, airports, health centres, offices, you name it and they had it. It struck me that this is the preferred choice for "industrial" use and thus would have the stamina to easily whip around my crunchy carpets once or twice a week, so I went online and found one for about £80 on special offer. Given that the RRP is £150 I went for it without hesitation, and I've never looked back. Well, except for the purposes of this review.

      An addendum to this utterly fascinating story is that I had a guy out repairing my tumble drier about a year after I bought the Numatic Henry, and he seemed to be a real technophile with an encyclopaedic knowledge of household appliances. Out of the blue he asked me - in a tone which seemed to indicate that he had an unexpected answer in mind - "Do you know what the best vaccy cleaner on the market is? The wee Henry". I instantly started jumping up and down like an excited chimp, screeching at the top of my voice "OMG I GOT ONE!" as I basked in the approval of a middle-aged tradesman like he was some sort of electro-sage. He went onto explain that the Henry is the most well-built, longest-lasting and easily repaired vacuum cleaner he had ever encountered. There ya go, two reviews for the price of one!

      The Henry is without a doubt the best vacuum cleaner I've ever used, and that's not hyperbole. The suction is so severe (no doubt thanks to the 1200 watt motor) that when you're cleaning a soft, thick carpet you'll have no choice to but to open the little vent on the handle which knocks the suction down from 100% to 70%, otherwise it's like you're trying to push the carpet out the door. I've now been using this cleaner for the better part of 4 years and it hasn't shown any signs of deterioration in that or any other respect, and it hasn't required a single repair. This thing is built to last.

      The cleaner's main shaft simply slots into the handle, which in turn simply slots into the main hose. There's no locking mechanism or fiddly clips to deal with; you literally just jam it up there. Along with the shaft comes a basic selection of attachments (including the standard rectangular one for straight-forwarding cleaning which has a switch for hard surfaces). These all work to help you get to those hard to reach places or to help you clean objects which require a little more precision. The end of the hose, in which the handle is secured, is a sort of hypodermic needle shape (like a hollow cylinder with an angled slice taken out of it) which itself is quite handy for certain types of cleaning. For instance, I use it to suck the dust out of the exterior vents on my computer case, as well as extracting bits of crisps from between the keys on my keyboard.

      The hose itself is 2.5 meters in length and at the risk of tantalising my dear old friend Sigmund Freud I can honestly say it's the longest hose I've ever seen on a vacuum cleaner. You can leave the cleaner at the foot of the stairs and comfortably clean a good five to six steps with it without ever having to lift it up. If you do have to lift it you're not likely to break a sweat, given how compact and relatively light it is (relative to other vacuums). The dimensions of the Henry are as follows:

      Height: 37cm
      Width: 34cm
      Depth: 34cm

      This little fellow can easily slip under your staircase or even into a cupboard, provided you have enough room for the hose, although the hose can be completely detached anyway.

      The power cable is again the longest I've ever seen. You have a good 12 meters to work with here (slightly more than the stated 10 meters in the product description), and when you factor in the length of the hose you get a nice fat 14.5 - 15 meters of cleaning distance from the wall socket. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I've plugged the vacuum into a socket in kitchen and then brought the cleaner out into the hallway, down the hallway and then up the stairs, and then into the first bedroom on the landing at which point I cleaned the entire room without any real trouble. The only problem I had was that I had to lift the hoover onto and over the bed in order for there to be enough slack to clean the opposite side of the room, but even with that in mind this cleaner's reach is unbelievably long!

      The power cable is stored internally on a wheel which is turned by hand to wind it back up again after you've finished with it. When you want to extract extra length you simply pull on the cable and the wheel turns freely. I don't know if you can make it out in the picture accompanying this product's entry but there's a little knob in the top of the cleaner which is fixed to a rotary mechanism. This is where you wind the cable back up into Henry's guts (it's also where the handle is located for carrying the cleaner around). Surprisingly the cable has shown no signs of wear despite the fact that I generally pull it out in violent yanks as and when needed, and have done so for about 4 years! This thing is like the Terminator of the vacuum cleaner world.

      The bags used by the Henry are "Hepa-flo" bags and are easily found online, with Amazon.co.uk offering a pack of 10 for under a fiver (just type NVMIC into Amazon's search bar to find them). They're also readily available in the kinds of shops which stock filters and bags. These Hepa-flo bags are compliant with all 200 series Henrys, as well as a few other models such as the James. They're quite hefty in size, and take up pretty much all of the cleaner's internal capacity when full, giving you plenty of use for your money's worth and, if you don't mind digging out the dust and dirt by hand, they're potentially reusable.

      Installing a new bag is pretty straight-forward. You unclamp the two clips on the sides of the cleaner and the entire top half of it lifts off, leaving just the red bottom half with the hose. Inside there's a cloth and plastic disc which is the same diameter as the cleaner's interior, and acts as a further filtration system. This is simply lifted out - no clamps or clips involved - revealing the bag chamber. The area where the hose is situated has a small spike on the inside, and the bag is simply pressed onto it. The bag's opening has a latex-like cover which ensures an air-tight grip. After this is done you just pop the filter disc back on top, then clamp the head of the cleaner back into place.

      All in all the vacuum's capacity amounts to around 9 litres and has an airflow capacity of 45 litres per second. The bags are durable, long-lasting and are given plenty of room to expand to their full volume. Using the cleaner at least once a week for both the upstairs and downstairs of a three-bedroom council house I can easily get by for several months without needing to change the bag.

      When the cleaner is on you can barely hear it from the second floor, which is something I never thought was possible. In fact, you can comfortably have a conversation with someone without having to raise your voice even when you're standing right next to it. Considering the sheer power of the suction (which is 1200mm, for those who care) you'd expect this thing to sound like an airliner's engines at full tilt, and it stands as a fine testament to the workmanship and engineering involved in its production that this is not the case.

      Because of the three-stage filtration system (the bag, the filter disc inside the cleaner and the filter in the head of the cleaner itself where the motor is housed) you'll never get any horrid smells or clouds of dust emanating from the Henry. In my desperation I once purchased a £25 vacuum cleaner from Tesco; after cleaning the floor the rest of the house looked like it had been fumigated with a smoke bomb, and it stank of burning plastic to boot. The old mantra "you get what you pay for" is so true that it's actually irritating. Having said that, the Henry isn't gonna break the bank, because one thing you don't pay for with the Henry is hype. This seems to be the bread and butter of companies like Dyson who keep releasing these increasingly ridiculous contraptions which look like a refurbished prop from Lost in Space. I don't think I've ever seen a single advertisement for the Henry anywhere, and I'm guessing that this is because the workmanship pretty much sells itself.

      If you're in the market for a new vacuum cleaner and have a budget of around £80 - £110 I cannot stress enough how seriously you should consider the Numatic Henry. No, seriously. Search online for a good price and you'll probably only spend as much as I did 4 years ago, which was about £80 including shipping to Northern Ireland.

      The Henry is as good - and as unpretentious - as it gets.

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        08.10.2010 19:19
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        If you need some general purpose safety boots you can't really go wrong here.

        I started wearing Grafters M15A boots in 1999 and have been buying the same pair/model ever since. Generally speaking I only need to buy one pair every two to three years, despite the fact that I wear them almost exclusively and almost every day. With that in mind the price is an absolute bargain.

        Depending on where you go you'll be expecting to pay anywhere between £50 to £70 for a pair of M15As. I usually buy mine from the Doc Shop in Belfast, and the last pair I got (which was a year ago) cost me £59.99. Much to my dismay I recently discovered that you can find a pair online for £44.99, or £49.99 if you include the £5 postage cost. Darn.

        The first two pairs of these boots I ever bought had a feature which has apparently been discontinued; the soles of the boots were literally screwed on and these screws could be removed and a new sole bolted into place. This made for some interesting conversations when I was going through airport security in early 2002, so in that respect I'm glad Grafters have abandoned the idea!

        The boots have 10 eyelets and extend about 12cm above the ankle, and are advertised as being the product of "genuine Goodyear welted leather" which basically means they're practically indestructible. They come with a pair of very sturdy "tube" laces, laced in a criss-cross fashion. If you need to replace them I'd recommend getting a pair of 190cm ones, as this length of lace gives you plenty of leeway without being too long to manage.

        The insole is pretty thin and the bottom on the boot's interior is built with a compressed cardboard material, making it quite rigid. The loose insole becomes almost dehydrated after a couple of months, making it very stiff and dog-eared at the edges like an overcooked piece of bacon. Replacing this with something more substantial isn't a big deal, but it seems unfortunate that the boots don't come with a half-decent insole.

        These are water and oil resistant steel toe cap safety boots which can withstand temperatures of up to 300°C, if you ever plan to do some construction work on the sun. The steel toe caps are extremely strong, and I've had metal bollards weighing about 5kg each dropped on my toes from a couple of feet in the air and the boots didn't so much as flinch. Result!

        Breaking in a new pair of shoes or boots is a fact of life and the ensuing blisters are pretty much unavoidable. With the Grafters M15As you'll be in agony for a good two to three weeks before they finally become a little more forgiving, assuming you wear them every day. What I tend to do to help avoid any major problems is wear my old pair of boots when I'm out and about, and make a point of wearing the new ones indoors for as long as is humanly possible each day. This helps reduce the number of blisters and doesn't leave your ankles shredded when you need to be on your feet. The only downside is that it'll take you about three times as long to break them in, but it's worth it. Once the boots begin to soften a little they become incredibly comfortable and offer great support for your ankle joints. With that in mind they could easily be used as hiking boots, just as long as they've worn in enough beforehand.

        If you're in a line of which work requires safety boots - and if the job doesn't specify a precise brand or model to be used - you're in safe hands with the Grafters M15As. They're flexible enough that you can nip up and down ladders with relative ease whilst being strong enough to protect you from most of the dangers presented by a construction site. They're also quite attractive, and if you keep them clean and don't have too many dings in them from work they look pretty good as a casual boot and are menacing enough to scare off any prospective muggers!

        Definitely worth 50 quid of anyone's money.

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      • More +
        06.10.2010 22:21
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        If you make heavy use of your deep fat fryer you'll get your money's worth out of the 45076.

        This behemoth has been a permanent fixture in the corner of my kitchen for several years now, and had it not been for the excellent filter in the lid my ceiling would most likely have turned a lovely shade of nicotine-stained fingers many moons ago. It's on every night, given that chips to my family are like water to fish, so I'm extremely well acquainted with this affront to cardiovascular theory.

        It's not likely you'll ever come up with a recipe for deep fried food which is in any way healthy, so let's just get something straight right here: steer clear of this weapon of mass saturation if you're even slightly concerned about your weight or the interior decorating of your lovely soft, pink arteries. I personally prefer a whole chicken deep friend in batter to 30 sit-ups a day, so sue me - just don't expect me to make it to the trial without some sort of winch being involved.

        I've been through enough deep fat firers in my time to know quality craftsmanship when I see it. You really do get what you pay for, and after a lifetime of going from one £30 chip pan to the next I decided it was time to invest in something with a little more stamina. The Harry Ramsden set me back £80, which was a big step up from what I usually pay for these deliverers of cellulose, but it's been worth it despite what my GP says. The product comes unassembled, but it's really just a matter of setting the lid on the top of the body of the fryer and slotting the handles into the basket; five minutes tops.

        There are two independent handles for lifting the basket in and out of the boiling fat, and these are easily removed for cleaning, as is pretty much every other part of the fryer. The interior of the fryer contains a rectangular cast aluminium non-stick tank which can be lifted out using the lips on either side, which just leaves the lid; this can be popped off and washed, and the filter in the little filter compartment can be removed and washed/replaced with minimal fuss, too.

        Along with the fryer comes a plastic screw-top container which has a kind of tea-strainer affair over it's opening; this is where you can both clean and store your oil whilst you wash out the main body of the fryer. A lot of grime and pieces of chips and other food accumulate in the oil over time and start clinging to the food as you lift it out of the fryer, so the tea-strainer takes care of most of that for you. The container, which can hold the entire 3.1 litres of the maximum oil capacity of the fryer, is itself is designed to fit neatly inside the empty fryer should you want to store it all away. You get a lot more life out of your oil by using this container between washes, and as we all know food tastes better and better the longer you use the same oil. Genius!

        You also get a handy fish scoop, which is like the ones you see being used in proper chip shops. It's a kind of flattened whisk with a long handle which allows you to gently lower your battered fish into the fryer without disturbing the batter itself and without you having to resort to the usually lethal practice of dropping the fish in. Oil-bleached eyebrows aren't as glamorous as they sound.

        The exterior stainless steel casing of the fryer has two hefty handles on its sides which are perfect for lifting the fryer even when it's full of oil (don't try this at home. No, seriously.) and are a fine compliment to its "cool touch" body.

        After a couple of years of constant use the lid needed to be replaced, because it wasn't staying shut during cooking. In order to have the fryer sent back for repair it would have cost us something ridiculously close the original price of the product, but after a brief search on the Morphy Richards website I realised that buying a completely new lid with a complimentary filter would only cost about £13, including postage to Northern Ireland. Spare parts for this fryer are cheap, easy to find and readily available, which is something I rarely experience with kitchenware or electrical products in general.

        The filter in the lid is a wire mesh rectangle and you can find these in most shops which stock similar filters and vacuum cleaner bags. Sometimes, depending on the brand you buy, you'll have to trim them down a bit to make them fit, which isn't a big deal. The filter is washable, and thus reusable, which is obviously more cost effective in the long run.

        The maximum temperature on the fryer is 190°C, and maybe it's just me but I've never seen a fryer which goes any higher than that. Having said that, I'm not sure why you'd need anything hotter than 190°C unless you're trying to fuse atoms. The fryer takes about five to ten minutes to heat up, at which point the red light will go out indicating that it's ready for use. Every few minutes thereafter the light will alternate between its on/off states to indicate when you need to lift the food out of the oil. There's an audible "click" when the light switches state, which is handy if you're busy with other things. The included manual gives an overview of temperatures and related cooking methods for things like chips, fish and meats. The maximum food capacity is 1.2kg, although you can fit a little more into it if you want; the only concern with filling the basket to the brim is that it's quite tricky to ensure the whole batch of food gets cooked evenly, but if you shake it around violently enough between dips you'll be grand.

        I can honestly say that I've been extremely contented with this fryer for the past three or so years, and am quite happy to simply buy replacement parts as and when needed instead of forking out £30 for a new fryer every six months. Harry Ramsden isn't someone I'm very familiar with but he has lent his name to a fine product and has contributed significantly to my ever-expanding waistline (at least that's what I'll say when I file my class action lawsuit).

        I'm not sure what the manufacturers claim about the product's safety, but I've never had a single spillage, burnt forearm or melted cornea for as long as I've used it. Can't argue with that!

        The Morphy Richards Harry Ramsden 45076 is a definite heavyweight in the world of boiling fat.

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        • Canon Pixma iP4500 / Inkjet Printer / 40 Readings / 39 Ratings
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          06.10.2010 12:58
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          For basic day-to-day printing the iP4500 does the job, but professionals should look elsewhere.

          In a market oozing at the gills with choice it's often a daunting task to find the printer which best serves your needs, and having had very little/practically no experience with printers prior to my purchase I decided to go with the consensus; I opted for the device which had the best reviews in relation to its price. The Canon Pixma iP4500 is the machine I settled on. It cost me exactly £63.68 on Amazon.co.uk in 2008 and currently has four and a half stars based on 69 reviews. Not too shabby!

          The printer is rather compact compared to other printers I've seen, and fits snugly in the central compartment of my small computer desk. The device's front printing tray can be folded up into its body, giving it a perfectly flush rectangular shape which obviously leaves you with more room when you're not using it. The plastic used in the device feels somewhat flimsy, but after nearly three years of use it hasn't so much as cracked despite some rough handling and rigorous usage.

          The device is connected to your PC via one of its USB ports; there is no old fashioned printer port connectivity possible with this printer, so you can throw away your bulky printer cables from the 1990s. It should also be noted that the requisite USB cable is NOT included and must be bought separately. Seems kinda unfair to me, but there ya go. I had a fair degree of difficulty in figuring out which kind of cable I needed so to save you a similar headache here's the cable I bought from Amazon along with the printer:

          Belkin PRO Series Hi-Speed USB 2.0 Device Cable - USB cable - 4 PIN USB Type A (M) - 4 PIN USB Type B (M) - 1.8 m ( USB / Hi-Speed USB )

          It's currently £2.72 on Amazon.co.uk, which isn't a big deal if you're already spending £70 on a new printer. If you plan to buy a different cable just make sure you take heed of the pin specifications.

          To connect the device to your PC you'll need to install drivers, which can be downloaded from the internet by simply typing "ip4500 drivers" into a search engine and taking the first result. There is a drivers disc included with the printer, but these are most likely outdated, which is generally the case with all bundled drivers discs, so you should always check the manufacturer's website for the latest software when possible. The printer is advertised as being "Vista Certified" and works great on Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7, in both the x86 (32bit) and x64 (64bit) versions. These are the systems I've personally tested the printer on, but the specifications indicate that it also works on the Apple MacOS X 10.2.8 - 10.4 and Windows 2000. Much to my surprise the printer isn't supported by generic Windows drivers, even on Windows 7.

          The ink used by the iP4500 (a batch of which is included with the product) is as follows:

          PGI5 Black (26ml)
          CLI8 Black (13ml)
          CLI8 Magenta (13ml)
          CLI8 Yellow (13ml)
          CLI8 Cyan (13ml)

          These cartridges are sold in a 5-pack and individually, but you should know that buying them individually is actually cheaper, at least it has been when I've gone to buy ink on Amazon.co.uk. You should also remember that buying legitimate, branded and brand new ink is highly advisable; the cheap and refurbished stuff just isn't worth the money or the headaches. To avoid running into problems you should only buy ink from the main Amazon website (assuming you're planning to use Amazon!), as opposed to the Marketplace or from individual users, and only use ink which is clearly branded with Canon's name.

          Now for the technical stuff! The iP4500 conforms to several standards and specifications, the most obvious of which is its ability to print full colour photographs on glossy paper at a maximum resolution of 9600 dpi x 2400 dpi. It's an ink-jet printer and uses Canon's FINE technology, which is an acronym of "Full-lithography Ink-jet Nozzle Engineering". This is basically a better-designed print head which allows for finer droplets of ink to be used without the danger of them being affected adversely by airflow and print head movement. In theory this means your prints will be of higher quality.

          The printer can output prints to both the front and back of the device, it can print on both sides of the page (which is known as "duplex printing"), it can perform borderless printing and can print directly onto CDs/DVDs using the included removable tray. It can also print on envelopes, iron-on transfers, photo stickers, cards, matt photo paper, high resolution paper and semi-gloss paper as well as the usual plain paper. The maximum page size it can handle is A4 (with a custom page size of 21.6cm x 35.6cm).

          The printer is very quiet at 34.5 dBA when operating, even when printing at a blisteringly fast 31 ppm (Pages Per Minute) in black & white and 24 ppm in colour. These figures are somewhat misleading, however; you can't actually print 31 pages in a minute unless you use the lowest quality setting and only use about 5% of the page's face with only text and no graphics. Still, it prints pretty darn fast all the same despite the dodgy manufacturer speed gauge methods.

          The physical dimensions of the printer are as follows:

          Width: 44.5cm
          Depth: 30.3
          Height: 16cm
          Weight: 6.9Kg

          The depth is the biggest concern here, given that most computer desks can comfortably contain the width and the height. The depth is such that you'll need a shelf which offers the full depth of the computer desk itself, otherwise you'll have the printer jutting out beyond the footprint of the desk. If you're planning to have the printer resting on a bench or a table you won't have any problems.

          The printer is an Energy Star qualified device (which essentially means it's an eco-friendly machine) that goes into standby after a certain period of inactivity. The power cable is a standard AC 120/230 V, and the power button is on the front along with the paper feed button. A green LED indicates when it is plugged in/switched on, and remains lit when the device is in standby. The power consumption of the printer when it's operational is 13 Watts and it requires a power frequency range of 50/60 Hz.

          As mentioned, the ink comes in five separate cartridges and these are incredibly easy to install into the machine. You basically just slot them in and they click into place and removing them is just as straightforward; a small lever is pressed which causes the ink to pop out of its slot again. When the top cover of the printer is opened, revealing the interior of the device, the ink bank helpfully moves into the central position for easier access.

          The environmental considerations for the smooth running of the printer include a humidity range of 10% to 90% and an operating temperature range of 5°C to 35°C. Unless your computer is in the middle of the desert or the polar icecaps I don't think you have anything to worry about here.

          The minimum system requirements to run the printer are as follows:

          [ Windows Systems ]

          RAM: 128MB
          CPU: Pentium II 300MHz
          Hard Drive Space: ~ 400MB

          [ Apple Mac/PowerPC G3 Systems ]

          RAM: 256MB
          CPU: Intel x86 (32bit)
          Hard Drive Space: ~ 200MB

          Performance-wise the basic printing capabilities of the device are solid, and when the printer is maintained well and kept clean the results are always consistent and crisp. With regards to the photograph printing things are a little less rosy; the results, even when using the highest quality settings and the best photo paper on the market, are somewhat mediocre. If you've ever converted an image to a low-quality compressed format such as JPEG you'll be quite familiar with how degraded the image becomes and how pixelated it looks, especially up close. Printing using the iP4500 has a similar effect on the image, even if the original is of high quality. If you plan to put your printed pictures in frames and hang them on the wall where it's less likely that someone will get right up to them you'll be happy enough with the results, but holding the picture in your hand you'll notice how blotchy, blocky and ill-defined the image is. It's almost as if you're looking at the picture though a very slightly frosted pane of glass; the image is clear enough that you can make out the detail, but there's a certain blurriness and unevenness which is significant enough to draw your attention.

          On top of the fact that photographs printed with the iP4500 are unimpressive the amount of ink used by the process is unreal. You'll never get through a 10-pack of glossy photo paper with one batch of ink. That said, normal text printing makes very economical use of your ink reserves, so if standard printing is what you'll be doing most you're in good hands with the iP4500. Photographs are ink-guzzlers to the extreme and in that respect the printer is less cost effective than simply handing in your digital photos at the chemist.

          For what I paid for this printer I shouldn't really be complaining. At just under £70 I wasn't expecting much to begin with, and I was very surprised and impressed by the quality of normal printed pages. I'm a guitarist and make use of guitar tablature quite a lot (which is essentially sheet music designed with guitarist in mind). These tablatures are made up of very fine lines and very small symbols and numbers, and being able to make them out is essential. A well-printed page of music is a pretty good measuring stick against which the quality and value of a printer may be gauged. I've never had any problem reading and understanding the tablature I've printed using the iP4500, and I've been printing tabs for almost three years now.

          The printer's user interface on the PC comes with a wide range of options for both printing and maintenance. You can check the ink levels, clean the rollers, realign and unclog the print heads/nozzles, decide if you want duplex printing, the quality of the print, the type of paper being used and so on. You can share the printer over your LAN (local area network) and can make it available on a schedule or only to certain users. You have complete control over how the printer operates, who can operate it and when they can operate it.

          As a standard ink-jet printer the iP4500 is pretty much everything you'll ever need, but if you're buying this printer primarily for its photo printing capabilities you should perhaps consider another model and be prepared to pay more than £70 for a printer which can handle photographs properly. Even if the photo printing facility was excised from the iP4500 it would still be worth 70 quid of anyone's money, it's that good. If that was the case I would have given the printer the full 5 stars, but as it stands it has a significant hindrance in the form of low-grade photograph printing.

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          • Maxdata NB Eco 4011 IW / Laptop / 59 Readings / 58 Ratings
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            30.09.2010 14:40
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            A fantastic system for pretty much anyone who doesn't play the latest big-budget video games.

            Laptops are so ubiquitous these days that finding one that meets your needs is like trying to find a needle in a stack of needles. It's not even a matter of being computer literate, or knowing the difference between RAM and VRAM, it's merely the apparent impossibility of finding the best product in a market so saturated that we find ourselves drowning in silicone quicksand.

            The Maxdata NB Eco 4011 IW (hereafter referred to as "the laptop") cost me around £250 a couple of years ago, and after a quick browse on the net I see that the price hasn't changed much in the interim. Even by today's standards £250 is a pretty good price for what you get in this system. Here are all the icky technical details:

            ~ [ CPU ] ~

            The central processing unit is an Intel Celereon M 430 clocked at 1.73GHz. This is the brain of the computer, and the faster the CPU the better your system will be at multitasking and the like. 1.73GHz is perfectly apt for browsing and playing casual games, like those produced by GameHouse, PopCap, or indeed Facebook. Forget about playing Crysis or GTA IV, it ain't happening. Word processing, email, Skype, YouTube and whatever other basic tasks you'll need your laptop to do will all run smoothly and consistently with this CPU, as long as you don't try to do them all at the same time!

            ~ [ GPU ] ~

            The graphics processing unit is an on-board chip, which basically means it's nothing special. As mentioned above you can easily play dinky little games just fine, but if you plan to do any intensive graphics editing or watching high-definition videos you can forget about it! The chip is a VIA Chrome9 HC with 64MB of on-board VRAM, which is usually the bare minimum required by most casual games. The chip supports DirectX 9.0, so with the exception of high-end gaming and video editing you'll have no problems running the latest releases.

            ~ [ Display ] ~

            The 15.4" TFT screen can support resolutions of 640x480, 1024x768, 800x600 and 1280x1024, assuming your graphics chip drivers are up to date. It supports a maximum refresh rate of 60 Hertz. As is the case with all TFT monitors you need to be sitting more or less centred in relation to the screen, because moving too far to the left or right will cause the image to distort and lose its colour.

            You can connect a separate monitor to the laptop via its vacant VGA connector, or if you have the requite VGA to HDMI cable & adapter you can even connect it to your high-definition television!

            ~ [ RAM ] ~

            The system comes with 1GB of DDR2 RAM clocked at 533MHz, but this can be upgraded. There are two available RAM slots you can use, and the system supports a maximum of 4GB of RAM (regardless of the operating system you're using). The slots will accept RAM sticks dating back as far as DDR-26 and as late as DDR2-667.

            ~ [ Networking ] ~

            You have three networking options with this laptop; the first is a standard fax modem port, the second is a wired Ethernet port and the third is a wireless (WiFi) Ethernet capability, which is probably the one you'll be most interested in assuming you have a wireless router/hub for it to connect to.

            The Ethernet adapter supports the IEEE 802.11b/g WiFi standard and gives you a 54Mbps line. Obviously your download speeds will be dependent on the speed of your phone lines and broadband package, but in my experience with this laptop I can quite easily get maximum download rates using the WiFi connection. Transferring files between systems in my LAN (local area network) is as fast as transferring them from one hard drive to another in the same system. In other words, it's an extremely capable piece of networking machinery.

            ~ [ Audio ] ~

            The laptop comes with the Realtek ALC260 HD Audio integrated soundcard, which supports high-definition audio. The card has a line-in (for microphones) and a line-out (for headphones or speakers), both situated on the left-hand side of the laptop. There is a built-in speaker which performs quite well, considering how little I expected from it.

            ~ [ Storage ] ~

            A generous 120GB of hard drive space is included with the product, which you can upgrade later if you so wish. Along with this hefty hard drive comes a pretty versatile CD/DVD writer. The writer supports dual layered and rewritable discs, and it supports both the plus and minus varieties of these blank media. The maximum writing speed of the dual layer discs is 4x, whilst the standard sized discs can be burnt twice as fast at 8x. The maximum write speed for CDs is 24x, which isn't earth-shatteringly fast by any means but writing to a CD doesn't take that long anyway. And let's face it, CDs are going the way of the floppy disc!

            ~ [ Input Devices ] ~

            A standard laptop touchpad with two mouse buttons and a scroll sensitive edge is planted centrally into the body of the laptop, directly below the keyboard. Typing on the keyboard is comfortable and fluid, although the lack of a NUMPAD and the relocation of several common buttons takes some getting used to, but this is an issue with every laptop on the market.

            If you're like me in that you despise touchpads you can simply plug in a USB mouse and use that instead; no special drivers or installations are required. There are four 2.x-compliant USB ports at your disposal - one on the left-hand side and the other three on the back. Take your pick!

            The keyboard has three separate keys on the top-left corner, offering one-button access to your internet browser and emailing. Along with these keys are standard function keys and the Fn key. Holding this key down and pressing another key will expand upon its basic function, if a secondary function is available. The keys are marked clearly in a nice fat print, with blue icons denoting the secondary functions.

            ~ [ Software ] ~

            A fully licensed copy of Windows Vista Home Basic Edition comes pre-installed on the system, and although there's enough power to run it and its fancy GUI I'd recommend disabling the visuals and using the plain old pre-XP look if you have the know-how (if you don't, just Google "disable vista theme"). With 1GB of RAM and a 1.73GHz processor you don't really have a lot of room for wasted resources here, and stripping away the visual bells and whistles will leave you with a fairly significant amount left over for more important tasks, not to mention the fact that you battery life will be extended if you get rid of these resource-hogging novelties.

            ~ [ Battery Life & Power Management ] ~

            The battery's lifespan can be given a boost if you allow the included software to manage it for you. The software will alter the power consumption of the system dynamically by only freeing up resources when they're needed, and these options can be customised at any time. You will notice when the power is being held back, because the display will darken, the processor will be slower in its operations and the overall speed of the system will noticeably lessen. With power management options switched on you should get a good three or four hours of life out of the battery, and without it you can obviously expect it to die out an hour or so earlier, assuming you're stressing the system under full load.

            As is the case with all computers (certainly those running Windows) there are system-wide power management options which will further increase the lifespan of your battery. For instance, allowing the system to enter Sleep Mode after a certain period of inactivity is good practice; if you wander off and forget to shut down the laptop you won't end up having to charge it for an hour or so before you can use it again.

            As you might expect the laptop comes with a mains adapter so you can use it without worrying about the battery life, and this also recharges the battery for you .

            ~ [ Accessories ] ~

            The laptop I bought came with a carry case, but I'm not sure if this is the standard or if I was just lucky and ordered it at an opportune time. The case is a fairly run-of-the-mill affair with zip compartments for storing cables and a Velcro brace which holds the top of the laptop in place before you zip the bag closed. It's well-padded and seems adequate for travelling.

            ~ [ Conclusion ] ~

            I generally spend most of my time on my desktop PC so the laptop is rarely used much these days, that is until my folks ventured out of the 1970s and into the age of the internet! They play games, browse the web, email, chat on MSN Messenger and make phone calls on Skype all using the Maxdata 4011. They rarely if ever have any issues and almost all of the issues they do have are software related; in other words, the system itself performs fine for their purposes and more importantly it performs consistently.

            If you're an on-the-go writer or just want to browse the web without being anchored to your desktop PC the Maxdata will scratch your itch. It's a humble little system, but it does the job. At £250 this is a very good choice for casual users, and it will serve as a fantastic backup system to compliment your primary desktop PC.

            Maxdata is a company which is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Dell or HP, but in my opinion they've proven themselves to be top contenders in the market with their Eco 4011 IW. I've never had to contact their customer support for the simple reason that I've never had any problems with the system, so I can't attest to its efficiency or customer friendliness. I've had experience with Dell, Acer and Toshiba laptops and while these are undoubted high quality manufacturers I'm not convinced that they have anything significant over Maxdata, except perhaps an overblown sense of self-assuredness and an undeserved reverence in the public mind.

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              20.09.2010 13:42
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              The Aqualtis is a monster, but unfortunately it sounds like one too.

              When I grew tired of the sight of my arthritic mother humped over a rock by the river side, bashing my sweet jackets against it in the pouring rain, knuckles bloodied from the chemical burns caused by industrial strength detergents and from fighting off feral children who would have my underwear to patch up the holes in their leaf-tents, I decided it was time to buy her a washing machine. Having had very bad experiences in the past with washing machines and the potential serial killers employed to repair them it became clear that the time for skinflintery was over. Enter the Aqualtis!

              The Aqualtis range was relatively new when I was in the market for a new machine and as such it was much-hyped in the shops through which I was browsing. Eventually I was convinced that it was probably the best choice, certainly the best choice within my price range, and bought the lil' fella with my hard-earned government benefits.

              Installation was very easy, and the only issue I really had was getting the thing to level out. Twiddling the little feet on each corner of the machine's underside takes a great deal of patience and skill, so naturally I just stuffed a coaster under one of 'em and that sorted it. Besides levelling it out you need to attach a hose pipe to the cold tap (it doesn't use hot water) and slide a second hose into a vacant drainpipe for...well, drainage. As is the case with all new washing machines you have to loosen a few bolts on the back which are there to keep everything stable in transit. Easy peasy.

              The machine is advertised as being quiet, but I can assure you that it makes a massive racket, at least after the first few months of use. When the spin cycle is in full whack you won't be able to hear yourself talk. It's like standing on an airport runway. Worth keeping in mind if you're trying to wash clothes surreptitiously for the KGB, or indeed if you're planning to invent some sort of motorised time machine.

              Now for the technical stuff!

              You can't punch in your own washing parameters and instead have to make use of the presets, although you can tweak certain aspects of them. You can, for instance, decrease the temperature, spin speed and the length of time the wash will take by using the appropriate buttons. An example:

              The "Coloureds" preset has the following default parameters:

              Temp: 40°C
              Spin Speed: 1400
              Timer: 1:35

              You can reduce the temperature to 30°C or have no temperature at all. You can decrease the spin speed to 1200, 800, 600, or have no spin at all. You can use the Time Saver button which will knock 12 minutes off the default time. These options are available for all presets, although the default values are different for each.

              There are three other buttons besides the Time Saver one which let you alter the selected washing preset even further. If you switch on the Reduced Creases function it will add an extra 12 minutes to the overall wash. The Mini Load function seems superfluous to me because it does exactly the same thing as the Time Saver function, and both of these options can't be on at the same time anyway. An Extra Rinse will add 16 minutes to the wash time. Most of these options can be mixed and matched.

              There's a knob which is surrounded by LED-lit icons representing presets and when you select one of these presets the digital display on the machine shows all of the relevant parameters for that setting, and the figures are altered in real-time as you fiddle with the parameters.

              The complete list of presets is as follows:

              Whites
              Coloureds
              Synthetics 40°C
              Fast Wash
              White & Prewash
              Synthetics 60°C
              Shirts
              Silk
              Wool
              Duvets
              Bed & Batch

              The machine's 7.5K drum can hold a Double duvet. A King Size duvet can fit if you're willing to put your back into it, but it's a tight squeeze. 7.5K is quite a hefty space to fill, so you'll get through your washing quicker than you might expect, especially if you're used to cheaper washing machines.

              Unusually, the detergent and fabric softener drawer is inside the machine. You have to open the door in order to access it. It's something which takes a little bit of getting used to; for the first couple of weeks I found myself closing the door after loading the drum and then standing with the fabric softener in my hand, staring blankly at the machine for a few seconds, before realising. The drawer can be easily removed for cleaning, but for some reason it's inserted into the body of the machine at a slight angle. This means you have to pull it out at an angle to prevent unnecessary stress to the plastic lip. It's somewhat awkward, and you have to jiggle it a little to inch it out of its little compartment. Pushing it back in once you've filled it with detergent and/or fabric softener is trickier, because with every "jerk" as you try to ease it back in the powder and liquid spill out a little. Kinda irritating.

              When you start each wash you'll hear a clank sound as the door is bolted shut from the inside. When the wash is finished you'll hear the same noise again, which is a handy indicator that the wash is finished; you don't need to keep checking if it's finished every time the drum is at rest for a minute or two.

              There's a Child Lock button on the front of the door which, when held down for three seconds, will disable all of the other buttons/knobs and will keep the door itself locked until you hold the button down for a further three seconds. This is an extremely handy feature if you have a few sprogs running around wreaking havoc; now they can press the buttons as much as they want without subsequently earning themselves a night in the cellar for ruining my aforementioned sweet jackets.

              One of the coolest features the machine has is a pause button. It can be activated at any time during the wash, and when you unpause it it will simply pick up where it left off. Also, if you start a wash and realise you need to make a change to the load or you've forgotten the fabric softener you can pause it which will also unlock the door, allowing you to gain access to the inside. If the drum is full of water the door won't unlock until it has drained away. How awesome is that? Very, that's how.

              The machine is an A+ classed machine, which means it uses your electricity in a very efficient manner. It means you can sleep easy at night if you're an environmentalist, but more importantly it also means you'll be spending slightly less on your leccy bill! Score!

              I paid around £400 for this machine a couple of years ago, and with the exception of the deafening loudness of the full speed spin cycle it's been worth every penny. The machine is a hulking monster of engineering and can hold massive amounts of clothing in a single load, and you have a great deal of control over how each load is washed. For the price this machine is a steal. If it weren't for the eardrum-shattering volume and the fidgety drawer I'd have given it the full five stars.

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                03.08.2010 02:59
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                If I'm ever asked what Thrash Metal is I will simply respond with three words: Master of Puppets.

                By the time Master of Puppets hit the shelves in 1986 Metallica had already established themselves as the world's foremost purveyors of straight-up Thrash Metal. The band were relatively young at this stage in their careers, having only released two studio albums prior and still exhibiting the pockmarked faces of their recent teenage years. Regardless of their wet ears they chugged along steadily, carving a neat trough right through the centre of the showy glitz of their glam metal counterparts, and in 1986 they completely destroyed any doubt that they were anything but the best. Master of Puppets blew out the speakers worldwide and is still cited as the band's greatest album to date by the vast majority of their fans.

                "Ride the Lightening", the band's previous release, was perhaps the most refined and most socially aware album the band had produced to date; Master of Puppets took these elements and bumped them up a notch. The mark of true artists and innovators is their willingness to render obsolete the work which came before, including that of their own back catalogue, and this is something the band has never shied away from. Discussing everything from the horrors of war to religious indoctrination Master of Puppets (or Paster of Muppets, as it's affectionately known!) is an important album both in its discussion of these contentious topics and in the fact of it being one of the last times the band would ever overtly discuss such issues. It's perhaps more notable for the fact that it's the final album which features the band's legendary bassist Cliff Burton, who tragically died in a bus accident during the supporting tour. His influence and contribution to Master of Puppets was such that his name should be the first one out of your mouth when listing the album's personnel.

                The opening track, "Battery", is something of a wake-up call for first time listeners. It begins with a gorgeous acoustic passage which is dripping with flamenco overtones, then segues into a distorted electric guitar version of the same, creating a vast, epic, booming harmony. It's all very pleasant and inviting, that is until the syncopated drumming supporting harsh, galloping guitar riffs comes bursting into your skull, rattling your eyeballs in their sockets. Welcome to Thrash Town.

                After several minutes of punchy drumming and rumbling distortion we're introduced to the band's lead guitarist, Kirk Hammett, who treats us to one of his more manic selections of guitar shredding. He kicks on the Wha-Wha pedal and ravages the strings mercilessly for the better part of a minute, leaving your ears wondering if there had been a nuclear blast somewhere nearby. God I love metal.

                The album's title track comes next, opening with what is perhaps the most recognisable guitar riff ever to come out of the metal scene. A thump of guitars, bass, drums, and then a pause. Then a descending run of guitars punctuated by occasional blasts of bass and drums. And we're off! The track is a fine example of how Metallica generally structure their songs; they write riff after riff and find a way of sewing them together, and the clearly audible seams are a large part of why the songs work so well, especially within a genre as rebellious and obnoxious as Thrash Metal.

                The song features several distinct segments with numerous lead guitar breaks and solos. The tempo is something to behold, with the majority of the track being played at 220 BPM (and the guitars are played predominately with down-strokes at this blistering speed, which is something my fellow musicians will no doubt appreciate!). Sinking to a half-time feel during the central passages of the song we're caressed with lush, harmonised guitars trickling with delay and reverb. James Hetfield, the band's vocalist and rhythm guitarist, tries his hand at lead guitar here and provides us with a guitar solo as soulful as anything Hammett has ever produced.

                Lyrically the song deals with drug addiction, dependency and the inevitable surrender of control to both the drug and the dealer. Lines such as "Chop your breakfast on a mirror" are fairly blunt, perhaps too literal for some, but the line conjures up an image which is as perfect as one could ask for. The drug addict here is clearly waking up to lines of cocaine, starting the day as he/she means to go on; in a haze, not willing to endure reality for even an hour or two, perhaps not able to under the weight of the gorilla on his/her back. The song is played live at pretty much every single gig, and was even featured on The Simpsons - you know you've arrived when you're donned in yellow skin with four fingers on each hand!

                The album features what has become an almost obligatory Metallica trademark - the instrumental. "Orion" is the band's most expansive and intriguing work to date, showcasing numerous examples of how mature the band's musicianship has become. Contrary to what the guitar and bass tablature books will tell you, the majority of the song's more melodic passages are played entirely on bass, not guitar. One of the secrets of Cliff Burton's unique bass playing style is his uncanny ability to both mimic and out-perform standard guitars in terms of the soul, passion and virtuosity he can summon on those four fat strings; the talent which earned him a place in the band to begin with.

                The documentary films Paradise Lost 1 & 2 (and soon to be 3) feature passages from Orion and several other Metallica songs on its soundtrack, with fandom of Metallica being one of the pieces of evidence offered in the trial of three teenagers who allegedly murder three children, which is the subject of the documentaries [see: West Memphis Three]. The band allowed their music to be used for free in the films, such was their shock at how horribly misguided the trial had been and how the evidence seemed to point to an insane witch-hunt which ended with three innocent men winding up in prison. The melodic passages of Orion afford a certain majesty and depth to the films which might otherwise have been absent, which is 100% thanks to Burton's influence on the writing process. His classical tastes are obvious throughout the album, and Orion is the prime example of how he has seamlessly assimilated these tastes into metal. His death was a genuine tragedy for lovers of metal in general and Metallica in particular.

                The production of the album was assigned to Elektra Records, who recorded it during 1985. The album's distinctive tone is perhaps indicative of the Marshal amps used as opposed to the direction of the producers, given that the same outfit had produced the band's previous albums without ever hitting this kind of tone. The album is tighter sounding than those which came before it, and the punchiness of the guitars is something later albums have felt barren without.

                Master of Puppets is an album which is the absolute pinnacle of Thrash Metal, and it's the last album of the old Metallica both in terms of its line-up and its general direction. ...and Justice For All, the next album released by the band, is for me the band's best but it lacks that old-school flavour which gives Master of Puppets its edge. The album is a favourite of fans, critics and metal historians alike, and should be the first stop for any newcomer to the genre or the band. For under a fiver on Amazon.co.uk you'd be a numpty not to have a listen.

                [ Track Listing ]

                01. Battery
                02. Master of Puppets
                03. The Thing That Should Not Be
                04. Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
                05. Disposable Heroes
                06. Leper Messiah
                07. Orion
                08. Damage, Inc.

                Runtime: 54:45

                Recorded at Sweet Silence Studios in Denmark in 1985 and released on Elektra Records, Music for Nations and Vertigo Records. £4.76 on Amazon.co.uk as of the date of this review.

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                  02.06.2010 17:28
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                  An angry, free and refined example of the illustrious heights thrash metal can reach.

                  The quintessential Metallica, "...and Justice For All" (AJFA) for me represents a period in Metallica's long history during which their unique tone, song structure and lyrical content was at its most refined. Never before or since has Metallica rode so high on their metal steeds as when they recorded this masterpiece of old school thrash metal. Many of the album's alleged shortcomings instead spice its gritty, no nonsense flavour and this, unfortunately, is a minority view.

                  I wasn't always as welcoming to AJFA, however. When I first heard it I sided with the opinions expounded by the largely negative reviews which have shadowed the album for over two decades. I agreed, for instance, that the lack of bass was a problem, that the raw and gritty guitars sounded too flat and harsh and that the structure of many of the songs seemed whacky for whacky's sake. Like most great albums it took umpteen listens before I finally "got it", and my love and appreciation of the record has only grown from then on.

                  The opening bars of the album are arguably some of the finest Metallica has ever written. "Blackened" begins with a slow, crawling two-guitar harmony accompanied by the bass, all of which was then reversed in the studio, giving the whole passage a strange, haunting character. The decision to play the audio backwards was an inspired one, especially when you hear the difference when it's played forwards. The main body of the song comes crashing in without warning, with a piercing single-note guitar riff puncturing the sombre calm of the intro. This rude awakening is the first of many, with the song's harsh, hammering riffs dipping into a half-time feel during the middle of the song and rising back up again. Soon after this Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist, is let out of his cage and he treats us to a wide ranging display of techniques as the tempo begins to return to its urgent origins.

                  Lyrically the song is a taste of things to come for the entire album, namely a direct and unflinching indictment on the darker aspects of human nature. "Blackened" discusses the bleeding of our planet, and its eventual downgrade to an uninhabitable husk. The lyrics are far from "green", and don't preach about recycling or the evils of deforestation. They instead push your face into the smouldering ashes of our inevitable future and force you to take a deep, gulping breath. I'm as far from environmentalism as I'm likely to get without completely metamorphosing into a dolphin-strangling plastic bag, but with the anger and the directness of the lyrics I find myself paying attention.

                  The album's most successful song and possibly one of Metallica's best comes in the form of "One". The genesis of this song is an interesting one. The band's chief lyricist and vocalist, James Hetfield, was discussing with the drummer, Lars Ulrich, what it would be like to have absolutely no means of communication after having your eyes blinded, your ears deafened, your body paralysed and your voice silenced by a landmine. You want to die, but you can't tell anyone. You're in pain, but you can't express it. You're fully conscious and yet are completely cut off from everyone and everything outside of the walls of your own mind. When discussing this the band's manager instantly saw parallels between this concept and the film "Johnny Got His Gun". In the film, the main character is in exactly this predicament. The similarities were so strong that the band used clips from the film in their music video for the song, and this was in fact the first music video the band ever produced (much to the dismay of hardcore Metallica fans who saw it as the first of many concessions to "selling out").

                  The lyrical content is understandably grim, hopeless and thoroughly depressing. The music video only adds to the despair, with the vocal passages punctuated by the desperate pleas for death from the film's main character. The obviously anti-war sentiments are made more digestible by the fact that no mention is ever made of the war itself, or the rights and wrongs of it, save for some audio of shooting and feint battle cries during the song's intro. Instead, we're completely trapped inside the mind of the victim, and we're taken along for the ride as he tries to make sense of his personal, private hell.

                  The song's simplistic verse riffs were inspired by the Venom song "Buried Alive", in which the guitars play basic phrases which modulate between two or three keys. In "One" the verses are played on clean guitars, with thin, piercing single-note picking making up the bulk of the sound. The choruses are, inversely, distorted, loud and thundering. Kirk Hammett's lead parts which pepper the song's various stages are truly some of the best he's ever written. They, too, are played on clean guitars and are pushed back in the mix so as to keep them just beyond the reach of your mind's spotlight. They augment the sombre, introspective tone of the song perfectly, and I don't use that word lightly.

                  The song's latter half takes us abruptly from the realms of misery into anger, the kind of anger you'd imagine spewing forth from between gritted teeth and bulging, teary eyes. The guitar riffs become quite interesting here; they are very reminiscent of machine-gun fire or, indeed, Morse code (this was the method through which the character in "Johnny Got His Gun" begged to be killed, by slamming his head against the pillow hoping someone nearby would both see it and understand it). Once again Kirk Hammett steps up to the plate and unleashes a complex guitar solo, beginning with a manic fretboard-tapping phrase [tapping is the technique by which a guitarist will use both hands on the fretboard, as opposed to having one hand on the fretboard whilst the other picks the strings] leading into equally manic noodling which again captures the mood perfectly - one of unhinged insanity.

                  The song is one of the few from the album which is still played live to this very day, and it is one of the most significant metal songs ever to be written. If you haven't heard it, or if you're not even a metal fan, check it out on YouTube now. I'll wait.

                  Good, no?

                  One of my personal favourites from the album is "The Frayed End of Sanity". The song discusses mental illness, and the experience of losing oneself in the soup of emotions that comes with it. One line in particular has always grabbed my attention:

                  "Loss of interest, question, wonder,
                  Waves of fear, they pull me under."

                  Suffering from both depression and social anxiety disorder I can say that this one line pretty much nails the experience, as much as a thrash metal song is expected to nail such an experience, at least! The evocative image of waves pulling one under will surely hit home to most depression sufferers, given that being lost in an endlessly black sea is often the analogy depressives will offer by way of articulating their despair.

                  As much as I would love to take each track on the album individually and describe the hell out of it, I don't think it's required or indeed enjoyable to read, so I'll finish by discussing the eighth track on the album if only for its significance in Metallica lore.

                  Cliff Burton played bass for Metallica right up until his tragic death in 1986. Being a lowly bassist one might be inclined to underestimate his influence on, and contributions to, Metallica's discography. Cliff steered the band's sound towards the epic, grand and almost classical nature the band is renowned for, and his final contribution to both Metallica and to the world is the bones of AJFA's eighth track, "To Live is to Die". The title was a phrase Cliff was fond of saying, and many of the riffs which flesh the song out were written by Cliff, or were at least inspired by riffs he had written. The song is largely instrumental, save for a spoken word passage towards to latter half of the song which is actually written by German poet Paul Gerhardt. The song's interlude is the most melodic, most moving piece of music the album has to offer, and serves as an apt farewell from the legend that was and is Cliff Burton.

                  The primary gripe most reviewers of the past 22 years have had with the album is its apparently mediocre production, and the blame for this was placed at the feet of James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich who took on the job themselves. There's virtually no bass except for the low-end of the guitars and the drums are too prominent in the mix. As a result of these unusual mixing decisions the album has the feel of an accomplished demo tape rather than a completed album, with an almost flat, two-dimensional character. These are criticisms for most people, but for me they are what makes this album so memorable. If you're singing about the human race circling the drain, do you really want or need to have top-shelf producers labouring over it with state of the art technology, polishing every second of audio and smoothing out every bump in the road? Or would you rather have the music reflect the reality, and have it sound dirty, gritty and raw? 'Nuff said.

                  AJFA is a success in every respect; it deals eloquently with the bleaker aspects of what's in store for humanity, and it articulates these ideas with due harshness. The album is 22 years old and is still as relevant today as it was back then, which is probably bad news for our species.

                  ...and Justice For All was recorded at One on One studios in 1988 and was released on Elektra/Vertigo Records.

                  [ Track Listing ]

                  01. Blackened
                  02. ...and Justice for All
                  03. Eye of the Beholder
                  04. One
                  05. The Shortest Straw
                  06. Harvester of Sorrow
                  07. The Frayed Ends of Sanity
                  08. To Live is to Die
                  09. Dyers Eve

                  [ Runtime ]

                  65:34

                  The album is currently going for a fiver on Amazon.co.uk.

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                    18.05.2010 22:50
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                    I consider this to be Metallica's first genuine album, and every metalhead needs to hear it.

                    Metallica has arrived. With their second album the band has dug a foothold into the side of Mount Metal and has begun a steady climb to the top. The musicianship involved in the weaving of this vast tapestry belies the band's relative youth and leaves that of the band's previous album, Kill 'em All, in the dust. The leap from Kill 'em All to Ride the Lightning is a significant one (all the more for the fact that only one year separated the recording of each) and serves as a harbinger of Metallica's varied and ever-evolving future.

                    Clocking in at just over 47 minutes Ride the Lightning leaves one's skull rattled and mind piqued; here, the band has evolved a social consciousness, exhibited most firmly in the titular track of the album, hammered home with pulsing guitars and screeched vocals. The lyrical content explores the hypocrisy and the moral implications of the death penalty, from the perspective of a soon-to-be-fried inmate awaiting death on the electric chair. His crimes are not revealed, but we understand that he is indeed guilty and that he accepts it, but wonders about the righteousness of the State ending his life. We're taken along for the ride as his final hour draws nearer and his mind begins to bend under the pressure, until eventually he comes to terms with the futility of his situation and yells "get it over with!".

                    The song features a guitar solo of typically epic proportions, with several distinct sections spanning one and a half minutes of the song's 06:37 runtime. For me this represents one of Kirk Hammett's most accomplished contributions to the album, with its seamless passing from one section to the next, and without ever descending into fretboard onanism. It captures the insanity, fear and outright anger of the character at the centre of the story. His constantly shifting moods, perspectives and emotions are exhibited primarily through this solo and this is the mark of a great guitarist; outdoing the lyrical content in the conveyance of emotion is every musician's dream.

                    The most widely loved song on the album is undoubtedly Fade to Black. Even my Westlife-loving mother has this song on her iPod. Take from that what you will!

                    The band's members experienced a severe hit of depression soon after their equipment was stolen, leaving them penniless and without the tools they required to continue gigging and writing material. When the situation came to a head the band arrived at a crossroads - do we just kill ourselves or do we get back on track? When the bleakness of their predicament started to fade they sat down and wrote about their experiences, and Fade to Black was the result. The lyrics explore the hopelessness their trials had instilled in them, accompanied by sombre, finger-picked acoustic guitar sections intersected with distorted, power chord-heavy detours, eventually leading into a climax of harmonised rhythm guitars and a crescendoing guitar solo taking the lead for the songs fading finale. The song is played live at almost every concert to this very day, which says a lot about the impact it has had on metal fans.

                    The seventh track on the album, Creeping Death, is probably the strongest link Ride the Lightning has with the band's first album, Kill 'em All. The first album featured a song about the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which is a fairly cheesy affair but typical of the metal genre. Metallica had vowed to rail against the big hair, Spandex and stupid lyrics of their rivals but had failed to do so in any meaningful way; they claimed to be separate from the silliness of the genre but were in fact writing the same kinds of songs, only with much higher tempos. Ride the Lightning, on the other hand, represents what the band were trying to achieve all along, and for me the album is the first release representative of the real Metallica. Creeping Death is the exception.

                    The song details the biblical account of Death, the Passover and the killing of the first born male. It's a largely empty work, simply furnishing the listener with a broad overview of what the bible says about these events, but musically the song is a straight-up head-banger favourite and a mainstay of live performances. It's also one of the first songs burgeoning guitarists learn how to play, owing to its intricacy of structure and the relative simplicity of its riffs.

                    If you've watched the film Zombieland you'll be well-acquainted with one of the album's more accessible songs, For Whom the Bell Tolls. A structurally modified version of the song is used for the opening credits and makes an appearance or two later in the film. The song, obviously based on Ernest Hemingway's book of the same name, asks questions about the motivations for war and what it means to be a soldier in the middle of it all. Although the lyrical content is fairly broad there is a sense of immediacy and urgency to the phrasing, painting a very stark image of the unfolding desperation and carnage. The intro features a distinctive chromatic riff played by the bass guitar, although you wouldn't guess that from listening to it; it's treated with healthy lashing of distortion and wha-wha, successfully masking the fact that it's played on bass and not guitar. Live, the song is an almost-permanent fixture, and has remained largely unchanged in the 20-odd years of its being performed save for extended intros/outros, and the occasional mid-song audience participation.

                    Running out the album's final minutes is an instrumental piece written in large part by the band's former lead guitarist Dave Mustain. The Call of Ktulu is an expansive, epic flexing of musical muscle, with numerous distinct passages wedded together by Kirk Hammett's blisteringly fast, and sometimes downright soulful, lead guitar work. The song ends where it begins, with a neo-classical arpeggio section played on bright, clean, piercing guitars. The piece continually rises to the heights of mania and falls to the depths of guttural, crunching, low-end riffs chugging along beneath the virtuosity of Kirk Hammett's guitar playing. The song is very much a Hammett showcase, giving him free rein to carve himself a neat little corner of the album all for himself.

                    The album's production is a marked improvement over that of the band's previous album, Kill 'em All. It has a depth and a meatiness to it which had been absent before, and combined with the improved musicianship Ride the Lightning has over its predecessor the studio team have made an album which still rings true today. The album is almost certainly of its time, and in its own rebellious way it became a kind of convention itself, one which Metallica and other metal bands have since abandoned in the unending pursuit of a new and evolved sound. Metallica fans need to experience this album, and metal fans in general will have an incomplete understanding of the genre if they haven't heard it.

                    The album was released under Megaforce Records in 1984, and was later re-released under Elektra Records. The album has gone five times platinum since its release and remains a steady seller amongst metal fans today.

                    Track Listing:

                    01. Fight Fire with Fire
                    02. Ride the Lightning
                    03. For Whom the Bell Tolls
                    04. Fade to Black
                    05. Trapped Under Ice
                    06. Escape
                    07. Creeping Death
                    08. The Call Of Ktulu

                    Runtime: 47:27
                    Price: £4.99 on Amazon.co.uk

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                      12.05.2010 10:38
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                      Metallica fans will find this album interesting, but I doubt many would give it a second listen.

                      With this curious album the metal genre is brought to classical music's nursing home for a visit, to catch up on old times and wonder about the metamorphic journey which led one into the other. Metal's classical roots are amply understood by now, and I imagine if Beethoven were alive today he'd most likely have Metallica on his iPod, but Apocalyptica are in the here and now and they've brought their virtuosity in classical playing to a generation of greasy, head-banging, tinnitus sufferers. Me, in other words.

                      The album features eight cover versions of classic Metallica songs spanning their 20-odd year career. If you haven't heard Metallica before, or if you just aren't into thrash metal, I don't believe this album will act as a buffer between you and the bloodied eardrums of my ilk. In other words, a string quartet might be expected to provide you with a more easily accessed experience than if you had simply fired up a Metallica record from way back when, but that's far from the reality of what this album contains. The harsh machine-gunning guitars Metallica are famed for are replaced with even harsher sounding cellos, raspy and screeching with every bow, setting your teeth on edge and punching holes through your skull (figuratively, of course). Even the softer balladesque numbers such as Welcome Home (Sanitarium) are given a gritty, rumbling intensity which belies their original despairing tone. This isn't a criticism, it's wonderful to hear such a vivid redesign of the music I've spent half of my life listening to, but it's probably more off-putting to non-metallers than Metallica is.

                      Apocalyptica consists of four cellists - there are no vocals, drums or anything other than cellos. The vocal lines sung by James Hetfield of Metallica are instead played here on a cello. If you aren't already familiar with Metallica's work the vocal lines will probably sound weird, because they're played "phonetically" and the phrasing feels bizarre without words to link it all together. Equally, the guitar solos don't translate very well onto cellos; if a cellist was to come up with a solo for a metal song it would almost certainly sound nothing like anything Kirk Hammett has ever produced. Again, if you are familiar with the songs being played then it sounds fine, but if you are coming to this album fresh from a metal-free life you'll be wondering what the hell is going on for the most part.

                      One cello tends to keep rhythm in lieu of a drum set, another might provide plucked accompaniment while others provide harmonies, lead parts and vocals. Overall Apocalyptica utilise their limited instrumentation with impressive confidence; the songs sound fat and fleshy, despite the fact that they essentially consist of a single instrument. These cellists have many tricks up their sleeves to get the grandest and most expansive sound they can from their chosen "axe".

                      Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos is a fan project, nothing more. Fans of Metallica will get a kick out of it, but this kick is short-lived and they'll probably abandon the album after two or three listens. People unfamiliar with Metallica or indeed metal itself should steer clear.

                      The full track listing follows:

                      01. Enter Sandman
                      02. Master of Puppets
                      03. Harvester of Sorrow
                      04. The Unforgiven
                      05. Sad But True
                      06. Creeping Death
                      07. Wherever I May Roam
                      08. Welcome Home (Sanitarium)

                      The album was released by Mercury Records in 1998 and currently costs a little over a fiver on Amazon.co.uk. If you are apprehensive about buying the album you can hear samples on the Amazon.co.uk page, or you can hear the songs in their entirety on YouTube. A handful of official music videos have been made by Apocalyptica which are also viewable on YouTube.

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                        06.05.2010 22:09
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                        The best disc image management application around, no contest.

                        With UltraISO you can edit the contents of an .ISO file (basically a digital representation of your CDs and DVDs) in order to add, remove, edit or replace files. The resultant image file can be mounted on a virtual drive, it can be burnt to an actual disc using your third-party software such as Nero Burning ROM which UltraISO integrates into itself, you can compress it and convert it to another disc image format, and so on. The program is the absolute pinnacle of disc image management and if you are working with these kinds of files on a regular basis UltraISO is essential.

                        ~ [ Variety of Features ] ~

                        The main features of the software are listed below, and explanations are provided:

                        [Edit Disc Images]: if you create an image of your discs, or download one from the internet, you are generally restricted in how you can manipulate the data held within them just as much as you are with a physical CD or DVD. With UltraISO you can open and edit the contents in any way you choose, allowing you to completely recreate the structure and file content of the image, or to add updated versions of certain files.

                        [Extract Image]: you can unpack the data on a disc image and have it on your hard drive, just as you would extract the contents of a .ZIP file. You can extract individual files, selections of files or the entire contents of the image.

                        [Create Image From Hard Drive]: you can create a new image from scratch, and you can add files from your PC to the new image at will. When you've built the image you want to build you can save it as .ISO, .BIN & .CUE or in most other common disc image formats. The program offers a visual cue as to how much data the image file will contain, which is useful for keeping you under the filesize limits of the medium you plan to burn the image to.

                        [Create Image From Disc]: you can insert your desired CD or DVD and use UltraISO to make a digital copy of it in the form of a disc image. The image is essentially your actual disc but represented digitally; it behaves exactly like a normal disc when mounted on a virtual drive. Again, most common image formats are supported. Any bootable data on the disc is maintained.

                        [Extract Boot Image]: if you insert a bootable disc (i.e. one that your PC will run before your operating system if you have set your PC to check for CDs/DVDs first) you can extract the compact boot image from it, and you can do the same with disc images. You can also add and edit these files.

                        [Convert Image Formats]: almost every known disc image format is supported, and converting between them is a fairly straight-forward affair with UltraISO. It supports industry standards/conventions, such as Joliet ISO 9660 levels 1, 2 and 3.

                        When an .ISO image is created or edited the final product can be compressed and optimised, saving disc space.

                        [Shell Integration]: the right-click menu which pops up upon right-clicking a disc image on your hard drive will have options allowing it to be opened or manipulated using UltraISO. If you have set the program's options to make use of a third-party virtual drive application, such as Alcohol 120% or DAEMON Tools, you can mount images automatically by double-clicking them. All of this is designed to save time and to make the software more convenient. Likewise, you can burn images if you have the requisite third-party software installed (e.g. Nero or Alcohol).

                        UltraISO's feature set contains everything you could possibly need to manage your disc images. The only downside to the software I have found is that its virtual drive and burning functions depend on third-party software you already have installed, but the lack of native burning and virtual drive capabilities is probably what keeps the price at a measly 20 quid.

                        ~ [ Reliability ] ~

                        I've been using UltraISO for several years, and have installed every new update which comes along, and I have never had a single crash or unusable disc image. The software is stable, and the images it creates and edits conform with industry standards.

                        ~ [ User Friendly ] ~

                        Disc images and virtual drives are things which require a certain level of savvy from the user already, given that most average PC users rarely come into contact with either. With that in mind, the software might be a little confusing if the principles involved aren't understood. However, if you're looking for a program which serves the needs UltraISO serves you must already know everything you need to know in that department, and in that case the software is 100% user friendly. Its interface is extremely basic, its options screen is streamlined and kept minimalistic, and the software's powerful features are deceptively straight-forward.

                        ~ [ Installation ] ~

                        The downloaded installer is currently less than 4MB, and when installed it takes up less than 6MB of space which is nothing when you consider what it contains. Installing the program is as simple as it gets; you install it, start it and then register it with your license information. No reboots or secondary installations required.

                        The software works on all Windows operating systems from Windows NT 4.0 SP6a+ onwards. That includes Windows 98, ME, XP, Vista and 7. The x64 and x86 versions of these operating systems are supported, too.

                        ~ [ Update Possibilities ] ~

                        Updates come along every couple of months or so, and are usually little more than fixes for small bugs certain users have reported since the last update (as mentioned above, I have never encountered a bug or had a crash in my three or so years of use). Unless you have a specific problem you probably won't need to update the software at all, ever, unless a new version is released with extra features or significant improvements over existing features. The lack of regular updates reflects this reality; updates just aren't called for!

                        ~ [ Conclusion ] ~

                        For £20 this software is a steal. It offers massive benefits over its rivals, such as ISOBuster and PowerISO, and it does so for less money. The software is well-designed/programmed, with no bugs or crashes that I've become aware of in my several years of using the product. I find UltraISO to be an indispensable piece of kit, and I find myself using it several times a day, at least. If you make use of disc images and related technologies UltraISO is something you should look into.

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                        03.05.2010 22:35
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                        Decrypts discs "on the fly" allowing you to have rightful access to the products you've paid for.

                        SlySoft AnyDVD is a piece of software which runs in the background of your system, decoding the copy protection and DRM of DVDs, Blu-rays, HD-DVDs and audio CDs in real-time. This allows you to copy (or "rip") the contents of your store-bought discs to have them on your PC, or to simply make backup copies of them should your originals become damaged or lost. It also has the added bonus of allowing you to watch imported discs which aren't intended to be used in your particular region.

                        I use AnyDVD HD, which contains support for high-definition formats such as Blu-ray. The standard version is identical except for its lack of high-definition support. The HD version is the one I'll be reviewing.

                        ~ [ Variety of Features ] ~

                        AnyDVD opens your discs up for you, and gives you unfettered access to their contents. As well as allowing you to copy the contents of your discs you can also play discs from different regions, perform restricted actions when watching DVDs and Blu-rays (such as skipping warnings and trailers, or zooming straight to the main menu) and you can use it with any format of disc currently on the market.

                        The software doesn't have any native burning capabilities, so your copied materials will have to be burnt to disc using a third-party application.

                        ~ [ Reliability ] ~

                        The software will begin to fail to decode the latest discs after a couple of months, because newer DVD and Blu-ray releases use improved copy protection technologies. The software therefore requires fairly regular updates in this anti-copy arms race, and it's rare that you'll run into any problems at all if you are sure to update it when it updates are available. When supported discs are inserted the software will spend several seconds scanning the disc to ascertain which copy protections are present, and it will then decode them accordingly. Once this is done the software works perfectly, and you're free to use the disc in any way you please thereafter. If the software fails to perform this initial test you'll most likely be prompted to update it.

                        ~ [ User Friendly ] ~

                        The software's GUI is an incredibly simple tree-list of options, divided into tabs. When the options aren't open you can have an optional tray icon next to your computer clock, or you can have the whole thing disappear into the background never to be seen again (well, until you want to change something). The options are all signposted very well and changing options which might adversely affect your experience will throw up a confirmation dialogue.

                        ~ [ Installation ] ~

                        Downloading the software doesn't take long; the installer is under 6MB. Installing the program may require you to reboot your system before you can make use of it, so it's a good idea to plan for this and to save any opened documents or web pages before you start. When installed you have to register the program with the included license otherwise it will operate as a restricted 30-day trial version.

                        ~ [ Update Possibilities ] ~

                        As mentioned the software will have a new update every month or two, and this is necessary to ensure that newly released discs can be decoded properly. The software itself can be set to check for new updates automatically every day, assuming you are connected to the internet at the time. Updates are offered as full replacements for your installer, so you'll be installing the program as you would if you are a new customer. Luckily you don't need to reboot after an update.

                        ~ [ Pricing ] ~

                        AnyDVD's price is quite fair, and licenses can be bought for different periods. For AnyDVD HD a single year's license (that is, a license which entitles you to use the software for a year and to receive updates for that period) will cost you about £55. A license for two years will cost around £70, three years £80 and four years £90. There is also an option to buy a lifetime license which will set you back £95, which renders the four year license a waste of money. The standard AnyDVD without the HD component is around £20 cheaper, but will obviously be unable to decode Blu-rays and HD-DVDs.

                        ~ [ Conclusion ] ~

                        If you watch most of your movies on your PC and don't want your drive to become region locked, or if you wish to copy your discs for safe keeping, AnyDVD is essential. The price is reasonable considering how effective and consistent the software is, and especially how stable it is (I can't even comment on the customer/technical support at SlySoft because I've never had a problem with AnyDVD which required their input!).

                        Backup your discs and enjoy your imports with SlySoft AnyDVD.

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                          03.05.2010 19:50
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                          As far as headphone splitters go the Belkin Rockstar is pretty much top dog.

                          Headphone splitters are nothing new, but Belkin's Rockstar Multi-Headphone Splitter is definitely the best I've ever used. It's a solidly built piece of gear, and does exactly what is required of it with no bells or whistles in sight, and it does so for less than a fiver.

                          It can take up to five 3.5mm standard headphone connections simultaneously, with the sixth outlet serving as the main connection to your audio source (i.e. your iPod, your TV, or whatever device you plan to use it with). The sixth connector has a green cable permanently attached to it, and this too has a 3.5mm connector on the end of it. There are no adapters included with the product should you need to fatten up your connectors, for example if you plan to use it with your amplifier or some other device with a 6.3mm (1/4 inch) jack. Certain mobile phones come with headphones which have connectors slightly thinner than those of standard headphones, and you'll likewise need an adapter to use these with the Rockstar.

                          Also included with the device is a rather useless extension cable. The cable is barely half a meter in length, and probably won't solve any distance problems you might run into. If the headphone cables connected to the device are long enough you shouldn't have any problems here, but there are situations where you'll need to buy separate extension cables. My primary use of this device is to allow family members to watch TV during the night when other members of the family are asleep. It's pretty irritating to have to reach for the remote to lower the volume every time something dramatic is happening on-screen, and this device allows us to have the volume as loud as we like. In this scenario, the device is plugged into the TV's headphone socket, extension cables are plugged into the device (one for each of us) which stretch across to the room to our headphones. The product is more specifically targeted towards iPod users who want to share a single iPod between them, and as long as you're all standing in more or less the same place extension cables won't be necessary. The cables I bought to go with the device were quite cheap, and you can probably get two or three for the same price as the Rockstar itself.

                          Each time a set of headphones is plugged into the device the volume of the signal coming from the audio source will decrease slightly, and if you have used up all of the available connections you'll have to turn up your TV or iPod a fair bit. The quality of the signal is not diminished, however.

                          It would have been very easy for Belkin to have bloated the Rockstar to bursting point with superfluous features, such as native volume controls, EQ, and so on. If they had done so the device would have suffered, if not for the inevitably higher costs then for the destruction of the device's best feature - its simplicity. The device looks attractive and has a certain futuristic feel to it, and the minimalist design fits in nicely with that of most iPods, so much so that it wouldn't look out of place to have "Belkin" replaced with "Apple" on the device's packaging.

                          The Rockstar splits headphone signals five ways - that's all it does, and it does it well. For less than £5 on Amazon.co.uk the Rockstar is a no-brainier for anyone who requires such functionality.

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                            25.04.2010 01:57
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                            Just as enjoyable as GTA IV, but is marred by the same performance issues and its brevity.

                            The PC port of GTA IV was a failure. Its performance was dreadful, and has remained dreadful as of the date of this review despite numerous patches being released during the intervening year and a half. The game itself was marred by poor AI and clunky controls, and these problems existed across gaming platforms from day one. GTA: Episodes From Liberty City (EFLC) is built upon the same engine as GTA IV, and therefore suffers from the same problems. A new patch was released to coincide with the release of the PC version of EFLC, which aimed to both patch the new game(s) and also to bring the original GTA IV up to date with the improvements of EFLC. The patch had almost no impact on the game's poor performance, although it did add a few more graphics options which allowed more control over shadows and anisotropic filtering. It also solved the problem people have had with drivers of vehicles being invisible at relatively short distances; now you can snipe them from rooftops instead of firing fruitlessly into Herbie Goes Bananas-style self-driving cars.

                            The performance of the game aside, EFLC is a rather measly offering. The game consists of two separate episodes, "The Lost and Damned" and "The Ballad of Gay Tony". The set is advertised as being "two complete games", but even taken together they don't amount to half of what GTA IV was in terms of the number of missions, characters and side quests which were available. You can complete each game in one or two sittings if you skip the cut-scenes, use cabs and trains when possible and don't die too often.

                            In "The Lost and Damned" (TLAD) you are a member of a criminal motorcycle club, a club which featured in several missions in GTA IV. The story begins with the leader of the gang, Billy Grey, being released from prison, ready to take over once again. Prior to his release your character, Johnny Klebitz, was acting boss and had managed to keep things on a relatively even keel with regards to the heat from the cops and the gang's relationship with other gangs from around Liberty City. Billy quickly falls into old habits and begins dragging the club down with him through his destructive behaviour. Many of the game's missions overlap with those from GTA IV which featured the gang, and Niko - the main character from the original game - makes several appearances, as do several other familiar characters from the original.

                            The game understandably makes heavy use of motorcycles as the primary means of transportation, and the mechanics for these vehicles have greatly improved compared to how they were in GTA IV. There are many new bikes and other vehicles to choose from, as well as a handful of new weapons. The new weapons are as follows:

                            [Automatic 9mm]: a handgun which is capable of automatic fire.

                            [Sawed-off Shotgun]: a double-barrelled shotgun with a very wide spread and a lot of power if used in close quarters combat.

                            [Assault Shotgun]: a shotgun which is capable of automatic fire and has a large ammunition capacity.

                            [Grenade Launcher]: fires a single grenade which explodes after several seconds.

                            [Pipe Bombs]: essentially the same as hand grenades, these bombs are thrown and detonate after several seconds.

                            [Half a Pool Cue]: a short pool cue used for battering enemies.

                            All of the weapons from GTA IV are included as well. A quick list of these weapons follows:

                            * Pistol
                            * Desert Eagle pistol
                            * Micro-SMG
                            * SMG
                            * Pump-action Shotgun
                            * Combat Shotgun
                            * AK47 Assault Rifle
                            * M4 Carbine
                            * M40A1 Sniper Rifle
                            * PSG-1 Sniper Rifle
                            * RPG-7
                            * Molotov Cocktails
                            * Hand Grenades
                            * Baseball bat
                            * Knife

                            The voice acting in TLAD is pretty standard GTA fare. The only noticeably weak link in the cast is the actor who plays Johnny Klebitz, the main character. He sounds rather strained, like he's trying a little too hard to sound like a tough biker type and instead ends up sounding like a bratty adolescent. The actor who plays Billy Grey is mostly convincing, although his incessant jokey sarcastic tone belies the apparent cold blooded nature of the character. This probably has more to do with the writing than the way he's played, however.

                            The side missions are scarce, and are primarily focused on gang wars (taking a selection of your crew with you to wipe out a rival gang) and racing. The racing is reminiscent of the old DOS game Road Rash; you are allowed to carry a baseball bat with you during races, and you're allowed to whack anyone who gets too close to you. Obviously the races are all conducted on motorcycles - if you turn up to a race in a car or on foot you'll get a message on-screen telling you to find a bike.

                            Besides these side quests you also have some largely meaningless activities you can perform, such as killing 50 seagulls or playing air hockey at the bowling alley. The air hockey is a very underdeveloped minigame, and it's both hilarious and frustrating to watch your AI opponent attempt to figure out how to get the puck out of the corner of the table. A way of earning easy money in TLAD is to participate in arm wrestling competitions, which are performed by frantically moving your mouse around in every direction.

                            TLAD is undoubtedly the shorter of the two episodes, and the tone of TLAD is a little more reined in and gritty than that of The Ballad of Gay Tony (TBOGT). The game is enjoyable, and it's certainly worth a look if you're into this series, but don't expect anything on the scale of GTA IV. This might sound obvious given that TLAD and TBOGT were originally downloadable content, but unsuspecting gamers might be drawn in by the promise of two "complete games" and I want to make it clear that these are nowhere near complete.

                            The Ballad of Gay Tony is the "wackier" of the two episodes, with a lot of San Andreas-like missions involving parachuting onto the backs of trucks and stealing helicopters from cruise ships. The character you play is Luis Fernando Lopez, a bodyguard and hitman from the Dominican Republic. He works for Gay Tony, the owner of the hottest straight and gay clubs in Liberty City. Tony's involvement with shady characters from the criminal underworld inevitably spills over into Luis' life, who ends up working for some of them and killing others. Many missions undertaken in TBOGT once again overlap with events which took place in GTA IV, and indeed in TLAD. Niko, Johnny and Billy all make appearances and many of the plot points from GTA IV and TLAD start to make a little more sense when they're all pulled together in TBOGT. I've heard the nature of the plots in these gamed compared to the film Pulp Fiction, a film which masterfully intertwines many seemingly unrelated storylines into one, and I'd have to agree with that.

                            As was the case with TLAD, TBOGT introduces several new vehicles and weapons into the game world. The new weapons found in TLAD are not available in TBOGT, but the new weapons you do have access to are as follows:

                            [Sticky Bombs]: these are remotely detonated charges which can be thrown against walls and vehicles, or just dropped at one's feet.

                            [.44 Pistol]: a new and improved handgun which packs a lot of punch but has a lower rate of fire and a slower reload than other pistols.

                            [Gold SMG]: a golden sub-machine-gun, this weapon is given to you by an associate after the successful completion of a certain mission.

                            [FN P90]: a silenced machine gun with a high rate of fire, plenty of power and a high degree of accuracy.

                            [Explosive Shotgun]: while this automatic shotgun can be used with standard ammunition it can also be fitted with explosive cartridges, which put massive dents in vehicles and send enemy NPCs flying.

                            [Advanced MG]: a heavy-duty machine-gun with a very high rate of fire and a massive ammunition clip. It's not very accurate compared to the other machine-guns in the game, but with a rate of fire as high as this you're not likely to miss twice.

                            [Advanced Sniper Rifle]: a sniper rifle with a much greater range than that of the rifles from previous games. It can be used with explosive rounds, but these rounds can only be used after a cheat code is entered.

                            The standard list of weapons from GTA IV and TLAD are also present in TBOGT. The full list can be found above.

                            For the first time since GTA: San Andreas players can use parachutes to perform base jumps and survive high falls.

                            The voice actor who plays Luis is superb, and has a genuinely menacing presence. He's a likeable character in many respects, but it's also clear that it takes little to send him into a murderous rage, and this juxtaposition of a frightening psychopath with a nice chap just making a living is written and played flawlessly. As was the case with TLAD the cast is generally typical of the GTA style and tone. Given that this episode is about gay nightclubs you can expect to see at least one or two homosexual stereotypes lifted straight out of a 1970s sitcom.

                            Side quests in TBOGT include cage fighting for money, base jumps, triathlon racing (parachuting from a plane or helicopter into a boat, then you sale ashore and drive a car for the remainder of the race), nightclub management (essentially being the club's bouncer), drug wars with rival gangs and killing another 50 seagulls.

                            TBOGT reminds me of San Andreas a great deal, and I think the developers were trying to recapture the gaming experience of San Andreas intentionally.

                            Both TBOG and TLAD feature further side missions in the form of "random characters". These people appear on your map as icons, and when approached you'll be treated to a cut-scene during which the character tells you of some problem they're having and asks you for help with it. Completing the mission often earns you money, and the characters are often people you've met, worked with or helped earlier in the game. The missions are quite fun, and when the relevant icon appears on your map you'll find yourself dropping whatever else you were doing and attending to it immediately. Often the availability of these characters depends on decisions you've made throughout the game. For instance, if you kill someone who would have become one of these characters later you'll obviously have missed out on whatever missions he/she would have wanted you to complete. It gives the game a certain degree of replayability on its own, and coerces you into make different decisions the second time around.

                            The games are third-person shooters, which means you'll have an over-the-shoulder view of your character throughout. The game has a cover system, which involves tapping Q in order to send your character behind a wall or a doorway, ready to shoot blindly around the corner or to poke his head out to get a more accurate shot. This is one of the game's most irritating features, simply because of how unresponsive your character is when he's in this state. During a shoot-out seconds can mean the difference between life and death, and the cover system holds you back bigtime. Likewise, the general control system of your character feels heavy, weighted-down and insensitive. You sometimes have to release all of the buttons and then press them down again in order to stop your character from running in the wrong direction. These problems have plagued GTA IV and now they plague EFLC.

                            Luckily you are not forced to engage in friendship activities which was something GTA IV insisted upon. You can use your mobile phone's contact list to ask friends out for drinks, games or food but you don't have to. Likewise, you don't have to search for or maintain romantic relationships. Thank you, Rockstar Games!

                            The multiplayer is largely the same as it is in GTA IV, with some game modes simply renamed to reflect the Episode you're playing. I don't play online, but here are the modes which are available:

                            THE LOST AND DAMNED MULTIPLAYER MODES

                            [ Witness Protection ]: a team-based mode in which a biker gang and the police do battle for the lives of witnesses in buses being escorted to court.

                            [ Race ]: The same as the racing which takes place in the single player game, but here you're playing against other gamers.

                            [ Lone Wolf Biker ]: a player tries to remain alive for as long a possible whilst the other players chase after him. Whomever kills you becomes the Lone Wolf, and whomever remains as the Lone Wolf for the longest wins the round.

                            [ Own the City ]: players attempt to gain control of territories around the city.

                            [ Club Business ]: plays take orders on cell phones telling them to carry out certain tasks in teams of 8.

                            [ Chopper Vs. Chopper ]: a biker tries to reach checkpoints before a helicopter kills him/her.

                            THE BALLAD OF GAY TONY MULTIPLAYER MODES

                            [ Deathmatch/Team Deathmatch ]: the object of the game is to simply wipe out your enemies.

                            [ Free Mode ]: players can roam the city freely with friends, taking part in base jumps and other activities.

                            [ Racing ]: self-explanatory, really!

                            The graphics are largely the same as those of GTA IV; photo-realistic, and still hold up well several years after the engine was fist developed. The performance of the game has already been discussed, but here are the minimum system requirements:

                            [CPU]: Intel Core 2 DUO 1.8GHz or equivalent/better
                            [Graphics Card]: 256MB of on-board RAM, preferably something along the lines of an nVidia 7900 or an ATI X1900
                            [RAM]: 1GB (1.5GB for operating systems later than Windows XP)
                            [Hard Drive Space]: 18GB
                            [Operating System]: Windows XP or later

                            Installing the game will take some time, given the sheer scope of the game's engine and textures. The game is spread over two DVD9s (dual-layered DVDs) and you'll need around 18GB of free space to install it. With the new patch you no longer need to install or use the Rockstar Social Club to play the game, and can instead remain offline. However, you still have to activate your license online and you still have to revoke your license when you decide to uninstall the game, as was the case with GTA IV. You do NOT need GTA IV installed in order to play EFLC - this game is a standalone release.

                            Overall EFLC is a great game, held back only by its brevity and its lazy PC implementation, hence the three-star rating. If you decide to play through GTA IV, TLAD and TBOGT in sequence you'll find it to be a satisfying and engrossing experience. If you haven't played GTA IV certain parts of the game will make little sense to you, and if you haven't played GTA IV recently you'll probably find yourself irritated afresh by EFLC's clunky controls and inconsistent performance.

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                              23.04.2010 07:22
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                              You may have missed out on this album had you not been "of age" during the 80s. Keep it that way.

                              Rebelling against the big hair and Spandex of the 80s metal scene, Metallica rose up as self-confessed gate keepers of true, raw metal. Their aim was to play faster and louder than their rivals without dressing like their older sisters at the same time, and to carve a neat trough right through the middle of the showy androgynous masses that dominated the genre. They failed in the sense that their music was only marginally less cheesy than that of their enemies, and they succeeded in the sense that Kill 'em All, their debut release, paved the way to future albums which did indeed redefine the genre.

                              I'm a huge Metallica fan, and saying what I'm about to say would most likely turn my friends against me, but it has to be said: Kill 'em All is not a good album, and taken alongside the rest of Metallica's discography it's downright dreadful.

                              Save for two or three exceptions the songs on Kill 'em All consist of chest-beating, cheesy lyrics and mediocre guitar work, the production makes the album sound indistinguishable from a somewhat accomplished demo tape and the vocals sound like something a teenager with a recently broken voice would produce if you ran over his foot with a lawnmower. Whilst setting fire to a cat. While its kittens watch.

                              These criticisms might seem a little unfair for two reasons. The first reason is that this was the band's first album, and they were basically still kids when they recorded it. Second, thrash metal in general consists of cheesy lyrics exhibiting testosterone-fuelled alpha male ideation, and the majority of the metal from this period had similarly formulaic guitar work. However, these were precisely the things that Metallica had vowed to fight against; on Kill 'em All they wave the flag of unpretentious, grounded and raw metal whilst singing about the grim reaper over the top of power chords and repetitive pentatonic noodling. I wouldn't go so far as to call them hypocrites, but I would argue that they were obviously having great difficulty getting a handle on who they were and what their music was about.

                              A good indicator of the success of an album is looking at how many of its songs are still played live a decade or two later. Kill 'em All has precisely two songs which still get an airing during live gigs on a regular basis, with one or two more being dusted off for special occasions.

                              Seek and Destroy, a rather silly song about the joys of picking a fight, is undeniably a solid metal track with some real thrashy riffs and impressive lead guitar work, and getting the DJ to play it at my brother's wedding between the usual wedding knees-up tripe was an absolute joy. Even more joyous was watching the dance floor empty faster than a swimming pool after I've chucked a Snickers in at the deep end. The song is played live for almost every gig, and it's one of the handful of songs I still listen to from the album.

                              The Four Horsemen is yet another solid metal song with some incredibly clichéd lyrics. The title should tell you everything you need to know in that regard. The song is in several parts, with fast galloping riffs making up the first and last stretches and a mellow, laid back centre featuring one of the best and most soulful guitar solos on the entire album. The song is the second of the two Kill 'em All mainstays of the band's live setlist, and if one can overlook the "teenager flicking through a book of mythology" lyrical content it's something to behold. Clocking in at 07:11 it's the longest track on the album, and its scope and intricacy is what has put Metallica on the map throughout their career.

                              The opening track of the album, Hit the Lights, is sometimes revisited during live gigs, but it's a rare occurrence in recent times. Lyrically the song is a celebration of metal, the experience of being in a metal band and of being on the receiving end of it as a fan. A wonderful moment of self-awareness for all involved parties, I'm sure you'll agree. The guitar work is total oldschool thrash metal through and through, and overall the song has a lot of energy and some flawless, blisteringly fast lead parts. It, along with Seek and Destroy and The Four Horsemen, is the only track I have given any time to in recent years, and apparently Metallica themselves would agree with me if their setlists are anything to go by.

                              From here the album takes a steep and sudden downward turn, with the dreary and frankly unimpressive lead guitar onanism from Kirk Hammett sounding like it could be lifted from one song and pasted into another without anyone being any the wiser, with the rhythm guitar work sounding like the doodles you'd expect to hear in a guitar shop when someone's trying out an amplifier and the shouting match that is James Hetfield's vocals leaving you with earache. The lyrics become even more tawdry, meaningless and begin to stink of very mature cheddar, albeit wrapped in rusted tinfoil.

                              One draw the album has for Metallica fans is the bass solo performed by Cliff Burton, accompanied with drums played by Lars Ulrich, called (Anaesthesia) Pulling Teeth. Cliff Burton died in 1986, and his death was a truly tragic loss for metal (and of course his friends/family). Cliff's influence on later Metallica albums was such that he steered the band towards new territory and fleshed out the band's sound so much that it's a wonder he isn't the first name credited on every album released prior to his death. Pulling Teeth is a great showcase for his talents, although it's not something one would listen to endlessly.

                              The production of Kill 'em All is an absolute nightmare. I've heard more convincing demo tapes recorded on analogue 8-tracks. I don't think we should be too quick to defend the production on the grounds that the album was recorded in 1983, back when CDs were something you'd smash up to make disco balls out of. Other bands of this era had albums which sounded much better, and that includes obscure metal bands like Metallica were at the time. Metal generally requires guitars to sound distorted for much of an album's runtime, which is where the characteristic metal sound comes from. On Kill 'em All the guitars sound like a beehive trapped inside a sealed glass jar. The vocals sound like they're doubled in an effort to give them some meat, the guitars, drums and bass sound flat and lifeless and everything has a very hollow reverb applied to it. EQ is something of an alien concept to this producer, it seems.

                              If you're a fan of Metallica's later work and haven't yet experienced their debut album, or if you're a total metalhead and want to hear where thrash got it's reawakening, I would recommend giving it a listen just for the sake of historical context. Otherwise, I'd give it a miss.

                              [ Track Listing ]

                              01. Hit the Lights
                              02. The Four Horsemen
                              03. Motorbreath
                              04. Jump in the Fire
                              05. (Anaesthesia) Pulling Teeth
                              06. Whiplash
                              07. Phantom Lord
                              08. No Remorse
                              09. Seek & Destroy
                              10. Metal Militia
                              11. The Four Horsemen (Live)
                              12. Whiplash (Live)

                              Album Runtime: 51:13

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