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If you've ever tried to get some sleep during the day, you will know how impossible it can be, especially when it's bright and sunny. On days like these, drawing traditional curtains doesn't block out enough light, leaving you to drift in and out of sleep and sometimes give up altogether. This is particularly troublesome when you desperately need to recharge after coming home from a night shift, so we decided to look into acquiring a blackout roller blind. With our bedroom windows being of the wide dormer variety, it soon became apparent that we wouldn't be able to buy one straight off the shelf that would fit, the widest available being only six feet, whereas we needed one almost eight feet. We chewed over the option of having some made to measure, but didn't seriously think that this was going to be a realistic solution, as it is usually an expensive way of doing things. Luckily, I'm not one to make assumptions, so when we got home I started to do some googling. I soon discovered that although there were indeed some outlets that were quite pricey, there were others that surprisingly weren't. At our local B&M store, a six foot wide blackout roller blind would cost £23. So to be able to order one online that is two feet wider, specially made to our requirements and delivered to the door for £40 from 247 Blinds seemed to be a good result. 247 Blinds make made to measure blinds of all types, including Venetian, Vertical, Velux, Roller, Wooden, Roman, Blackout, Solar Protection, Pleated, Panel and Perfect Fit. They also make curtains. Contrary to popular thought, a blackout blind doesn't have to be in a dark colour, as it is the treatment applied to the material that blocks the light out. Available as either a roller or a vertical blind, we preferred the roller as we have verticals at work which flap about annoyingly in the wind when the window is open. All their blinds come with a 3 year guarantee for extra peace of mind. After clicking icons to select the type, style and colour of blind that interests you - we chose the Origin Blackout in Oyster - a quotation form appears enabling you to order a free sample or enter measurements to get a price. One of the things to specify is whether you will be fitting the blind inside or outside the window recess. This will influence measurements and the type of brackets you will be sent. As the inside of our recess is mostly made up of UPVC, we chose an outside fitting. We also opted for right hand controls. When entering the measurements there are a number of things to allow for that can leave you doing some furious head scratching. For example, the site advises that the cloth is going to be 3cm shorter than the overall width and they also recommend a 6cm overhang at each side for outside recess fittings. To further complicate things, we didn't have this much wall to play with at one side because of our fitted wardrobes. It all made for a nerve racking ordering process and wait, as some very careful measuring and calculating was called for, something I've got a track record for getting horribly wrong. It was with a huge sigh of relief then, that when the blind arrived and we held it up to the window, it was clear it was going to fit perfectly. For the less brave (or foolhardy), rather than ordering online there is also the option of calling an 0845 number to speak to an agent and benefit from their advice. I also suggest you ignore the various special delivery options. They offer a next day delivery, a fast-tracked service that claims to queue jump your order for an additional £9.95. However, we opted for the free standard delivery and still received the blind within 48 hours. The blind arrived well packaged and complete with everything except the promised fitting instructions, but this was resolved by finding them on their website. The fixing brackets they had included weren't as illustrated, which flummoxed me briefly, but they were simple enough to figure out. The difficult part was fixing them the right distance apart, so that the blind was a tight enough fit to stay in place when the locating spigots and spring plunger engaged with them. A couple of hastily filled drill holes later, the blind was up and operational. It's early days to discuss durability, but the fabric feels strong and looks well finished, and is hung from a solid looking metal tube, which promises to stand the test of time. It certainly does its job of blotting out unwanted light very effectively and looks the part as well. The only slight gripe is that the sidewinder, white bead control chain can be stiff to operate, causing the blind to lurch up and down a bit. As we aren't opening the blind each and every day though, this isn't much of an annoyance. With the customer journey relatively trouble free from start to finish, we had planned to order again for another room we are contemplating a makeover of. However, a return to the site to research this review has made us think twice. Emblazoned across the home page were the words 'Bank Holiday Madness - 50% Off!'. My initial reaction was 'Oh...I wish we had waited', but then something in my curious nature made me put in all the measurements relating to our last order again. I think you may have already worked out where this is leading. The quote now made it appear that the price should be £80, leaving a balance of £40 after the supposed 50% discount was applied...the same as we paid for this blind without promotion about six weeks previously. That is very disappointing, the lack of integrity tarnishing a little the 'feel good' factor that encouraged us to sing their praises to all and sundry and consider buying another one. I really can't understand why they felt the need to do this, as they had already undercut most, if not all, of their internet rivals. As I'm not likely to cut off my nose to spite my face, I will probably order from 247 Blinds again. However, I don't like attempts to hoodwink and will certainly be on my guard.
If you're trying to eat more healthily, sausages will probably be one of the first things you stop putting in your supermarket trolley. Typically high in saturated fats, the repercussions of eating them regularly are said to result in heart, blood pressure or bowel problems for some people. I have always tried not to think too much about some of the less appetising extracts from cow or pig that can apparently lurk inside the skin of a cheaper sausage. For someone who looks upon eating as a hobby, I have always found it perverse that the tastiest foods are usually the worst for you and decided early in life that blissful ignorance was the best policy. The trouble is, I'm now beginning to pay for it. Recent trips around the supermarket have therefore required a lot more thought, as I try to strike a balance between healthy and tasty. Not an easy task when trying to make sense of food labels measuring nutrition by serving and per 100g. So when I discovered sausages and burgers in the Quorn range on special offer for a pound each, it was one of the easier choices to make. Quorn is the brand name for a range of meat substitutes made from mycoprotein, a synthetic food source derived from fungus, which was developed in the 1960's in anticipation of food shortages that never materialised. After years of testing, it hit the food market in the 1980's and there are now over 100 products made from the substance, all subtly flavoured to imitate. The product I picked up with was Quorn's 'Red Leicester and Onion Sausages', in its distinctive carton with yellow and orange logo, that is 250g in weight containing five, yes FIVE sausages. I found this quantity a little odd in more ways than one. Cooking for two meant I had to slice one in half, so that we could have equal portions of two and a half sausages each. Each sausage contains only 3.3g of fat, a third the amount found in a typical Walls pork sausage, owing to the fact that its main ingredient is 44% of low fat mycoprotein rather than meat. Little wonder then that these sort of products are said to have many health benefits, including actually lowering cholesterol levels. Cooking is a simple process of brushing with vegetable oil and putting them under the grill for 8 to 10 minutes, turning occasionally. This is one of the advantages of mycoprotein, its relatively short cooking time. First impressions are that they look like a conventional sausage, if a little smaller than average. So far so good, but how does it fair on a plate with a dollop of mash? Quite well actually. It certainly tastes like a sausage should, although I can't, in all honesty, detect the 7.9% vegetarian cheese content. The texture of the sausage is also more or less as you'd expect, except that there is obviously not a hint of gristle in this meat free product. What did become apparent after a few mouthfuls however, was their lack of succulence, being drier than a normal sausage, probably due to the fact they aren't oozing fat. The biggest compliment I can pay to these sausages, is that if they had been prepared for me and presented on a plate, I wouldn't have had an inkling that they didn't contain any meat.
They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so not being able to face any food until dinner time probably hasn't done me any favours over the years. With a diet sheet to follow while suffering from a stomach ulcer, a radical change of eating habits has had to be made on many levels, one of which was finding something that would slip down easily first thing in the morning. With porridge standing out as the most obvious choice, I decided to turn to an old childhood favourite and for several weeks really enjoyed the smooth, creamy texture of Ready Brek. However when I next went shopping, I discovered that Quaker Oats was 75p cheaper for the 250g more in its 1kg box. Ever the economiser, I decided to switch to this instead. After all, porridge is porridge, surely. Wrong! The first thing that is noticeable is the difference in appearance between the two products, Quaker Oats' larger flakes contrasting markedly with the fine, powdery grains of Ready Brek, which is more intensively milled and also contains 39% oat flour. Quaker Oats is 100% rolled oats, nothing else. This ought to have given me a clue that they would mix up differently. The consistency of porridge is a matter of personal taste and usually down to how you choose to prepare it. Some like it thick and lumpy, others smooth and creamy. However it should be possible to make a porridge to your own specifications between these boundaries. Not with Quaker Oats! The packet's instructions aren't as helpful as they could be, the recommended quantities measured either in grams or cups. If you haven't got any kitchen scales and have cups of varying sizes, this leaves a lot of guess work. The five heaped dessert spoons suggested by Ready Brek is a much clearer instruction. Quaker Oats recommend that for one serving you use 40g or ¾ of a cup of oats mixed with either 300ml of water or milk. Cooking time is either 3½ minutes in a 800 watt microwave or 5 minutes simmering on the hob after being brought to the boil. Following these instructions, you could stand a spoon up in the first few servings I made, the porridge was so stodgy and lacking in moisture. It also has a more bitter taste than Ready Brek, which is difficult to explain as neither have added sugar. While it is possible to achieve a thinner consistency, it is impossible to rid yourself of all the lumps, as these are the huskier flakes that don't dissolve. Therefore if you are like me and have a keen gag reflex, eating Quaker Oats will not be a pleasant experience. I have never liked rice pudding for the same reason. Health professionals argue that thicker porridge is better for you as it takes longer to digest, meaning the carbohydrates release more gradually, which is a more beneficial process for the heart. It also fills you up for longer. This probably means that Quaker Oats is a little more healthy for you, but we're hardly comparing good and bad in that respect here. The level of soluble fibre in the form of Beta-Glucan that is present in all whole oat products, not only lowers your cholesterol, but also boosts the immune system. As something to slip down easily first thing in the morning, Quaker Oats doesn't fit the bill at all. Nor does it taste as pleasant as Ready Brek without adding sugar. Those who like their porridge made the traditional way may think differently, however I would rather spend 75p more for a smaller 750g box of Ready Brek.
A few weeks ago, having watched the film 'The Sum of All Fears' on TV, which is loosely based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, I was stirred to get stuck into a good paperback thriller again. The last time I felt this way, my enthusiasm was abruptly derailed with the mind numbing and needlessly complex 'The Lost Symbol' by Dan Brown. Being a methodical sort of person, I decided it was sensible to start with Tom Clancy's first work 'The Hunt for Red October', written in 1984. For a time it appeared to be another bad choice. ~~~The Author~~~ Tom Clancy is an American novelist who writes espionage thrillers, predominantly involving CIA operatives Jack Ryan and/or John Clark. The chronological order of the series differs from the published order, as Clancy felt the need to develop his principal characters with back stories. Therefore, although 'The Hunt for Red October' is his first novel, it is chronologically the fourth. He has also written technical non-fiction books about the armed forces and his name is used to promote a raft of video games. Clancy's novels demonstrate that he is well connected in military circles, often referring to scarcely known systems and technologies. He is also said to have predicted several world events, one of which is inadvertently writing the blue print for the 9/11 attacks in his 1994 book 'Debt of Honour'. ~~~The Plot~~~ A Russian submarine commander Marko Ramius and some of his senior officers decide to defect with their top secret stealth vessel the 'Red October', sparking a frantic chase which threatens to pit superpower against superpower and escalate into nuclear war. Respected security analyst Jack Ryan is called in by the CIA to assist in unravelling the Russians' motives before the situation gets out of control. The question turns out to be, who will get to the elusive 'Red October' first, East or West? This is the paperback version published by Harper Collins and is 544 pages long, each chapter representing a separate day in the crisis, eighteen of them in all. The chapters are constantly sub divided as emphasis shifts between all the various parties involved. ~~~My View~~~ Having seen several of the film adaptations of Clancy novels before, including this one a long time ago, my visualization of the characters while reading is of Sean Connery as Ramius and Harrison Ford as Ryan. It's sometimes odd how the mind works, as Alec Baldwin played Ryan in this particular movie! I have long suspected that back cover testimonials are copied and pasted from one book to another, the same tired superlatives appearing over and over again. In this case the 'Mail on Sunday' reckons that the book is 'a fast moving blockbuster', the pace of which it clearly isn't. The submarine leaves port on page one and plays cat and mouse with potential friend and desperate foe for the next 348 pages before finally making contact and moving the story along. In between there are large swathes of confusing techno babble, that I suspect even some naval ratings would struggle to comprehend, and the situation is viewed from far too many angles, a cast of thousands and their vessels or locations introduced. Usually I am disappointed when I watch a film based on a book I've read. This time it was vice versa. There was a decent plot in there, crying out to be freed from chronic over indulgence, and the time constraints of the silver screen gave the scriptwriters of the movie the excuse to strip it down and make better use of it. Not an easy task though, film studios reputedly dismissing it as 'too complicated' to develop initially. I usually like to absorb everything I read and make sense of it, but in this case relented and allowed some of it to disappear over my head with an almighty whoosh. It was either do that or put another book down at page 100, as I did with 'The Lost Symbol'. In this case I cared for the outcome and was determined to fight my way to the business end of the book. I was rewarded as the book does pick up pace in the final 150 pages, soviet resistance both on board the defecting vessel and from its pursuers while under escort, making it an exciting, all action finish. As Tom Clancy is renowned for the technical detail he uses, I suspect the same frustrations will surface again, as I stoically try another of his novels. While I'm willing to let a certain amount of bumph wash over me, my tolerance of prejudice is less generous. 'The Hunt for Red October' is laced with jaundiced racial stereotypes, with the rest of the world (particularly the Soviet Union) often disparagingly viewed through a star spangled banner. This could be why I do put the next book down early...we shall see. One thing I can be sure of is that, between all the claptrap, 'The Hunt for Red October' is an intriguing, well delivered read from an author with an uncanny knack for foretelling world events.
Recovering from a stomach ulcer and having to eat plain, low fat food little but often, I have been a little stumped as to what I can safely nibble between meals. With my usual spicily flavoured snacks such as Doritos out of the question, I decided to try rice cakes, an old favourite of my sister's that I used to tease her mercilessly about when we were young. My first reaction was that they weren't that bad after all, the initial shot of flavour being reminiscent of the old seventies breakfast cereal, Puffa Puffa Rice. However, I soon began to find them a little too bland for my tastes...although not quite as bad as chewing polystyrene as my wife claims. On closer inspection of the healthy nibbles aisle in the supermarket, I discovered that rice cakes actually come in a number of different flavours, one of which is Marmite. There is no doubt whatsoever which camp I belong to...I absolutely love the stuff, having been brought up on cheese and marmite sandwiches from being old enough to go onto solids. Showing restraint never before seen from me however, I decided to try the 25g packet for 59p as opposed to wading straight into the 110g one at £1.19. The 25g product comes in packaging the size and shape of a packet of crisps, in the distinctive colouring of a Marmite jar...black background with yellow, red and green logo proclaiming 'Marmite ~ Yeast Extract ~ Rich in B Vitamins ~ 100% Vegetarian'. Underneath they also assert that 'Rice cakes will never have to be bland and boring again now we've baked them with lovely Marmite'. I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree. For those who are unaware, Marmite have mounted a tongue in cheek, self deprecating marketing campaign around the 'love or hate' angle and their website is split accordingly between the two. Each of their products is described from both viewpoints, which makes some odd yet amusing reading. Clicking the devilish 'Hate - This Way' icon takes you to an alternative description of the product which reads as follows: 'Rice cakes? Cardboard, tasteless, rubbish. Now they've made them even worse, if that's possible, by drenching them in Marmite! What was once fobbed off to dieters has now become an object of hate for everyone. Still, they do make a satisfying crunch underfoot. These foul rice cakes have no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, but still manage to be grim. They're also rich in B vitamins and have less than 3% fat - big whoop'. I can't help thinking that this takes the whole 'Love or Hate' theme a little bit too far though. Contrary to what it says online where they describe a 30g packet, the one I have is without doubt a 25g one. The rice cakes are miniature ones, being 45mm in diameter as opposed to the 90mm of a standard slice, approximately twenty discs that are light brown in appearance due to the 16% Marmite content. I must admit to being a little wary, having tried Marmite flavoured breadsticks before, which I wasn't keen on as they just tasted as if they were burnt or over baked. However in this case they seem to have got the mixture and process just right, strong enough to liven the cake up without making it sickly, possibly as it absorbs better into rice. I expected that a packet of this size wouldn't be sufficient for a movie bag devourer like myself, but was surprised to find that I would have saved some for another day if it had been re-sealable. Not wanting them to degrade, I valiantly ploughed through the lot of them instead! With no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, the ingredients read as if taken from a multi vitamin supplement label, with Niacin, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Folic Acid and Vitamin B12 all present. With less than 3% fat and only 98 calories, this is a healthy snack that I can certainly testify is easy on the stomach, yet appealing to the taste buds.
I was surprised to read somewhere that 90% of us still listen to the radio at some stage every week. Since my car radio's loose wire lost forever its fragile grip somewhere behind the dashboard, I have to say my exploration of the air waves is now much less frequent than that. I do however, get out my trusty Sony AM/FM Walkman Radio from time to time when there is something I particularly want to keep tabs on. It hadn't occurred to me until pondering this review, that there is also an analogue switch off planned for the radio signal, albeit mooted for much later, around 2015 at the earliest. That is a big shame for the subject of this review, which I'm sure would otherwise be valiantly upstaging grander and glitzier units much, much longer than that...probably on the same AA battery! My radio listening tends to fall into two categories; sports commentary and sports chat. As an avid follower of Barnsley FC who perennially struggle at the wrong end of our division, it has often been more important to know what is happening at other games than what is painfully unfolding in front of my eyes. Despite my best efforts, it is also impossible to sit in front of the TV all day watching the English test cricket team, day to day work and chores inevitably intervening. The radio was bought for me about five years ago with this sort of usage in mind. Taking up less pocket space than a pack of playing cards, it is easy to take with you when the need arises, as something belonging to the Walkman range should. With the emphasis on simplicity and basic functionality, this isn't a piece of equipment for the gadget geek though. Sony have manufactured a radio and that is what you get, with none of the bells and whistles that many may have become accustomed to. No such luxuries as even a station preset button or LCD are to be found on this device. Its traditional tuning dial on the front is nostalgically retro in contrast with its modern, sleek, miniaturised casing. A large, sliding, oval on/off switch is situated on the front, with wheels for tuning and volume right and left. The only other switches are also on the right side, to change between wave bands and stereo/mono sound. At the top is the headphone socket, which has to be used in order to listen to the radio as there is no speaker. On the back, near its base, is the battery compartment which houses one AA battery. It is released by sliding it downwards with your thumb, but has a useful hinge so doesn't come off entirely. What sets it apart from other portable radios, is the strong and sturdy belt clip moulded to the back. This enables the radio to be slid onto belts, waist bands or pockets to provide convenient carriage at just the right height for the bundled earphones to reach without having to be stretched. These are unspectacular, regulation issue black buds, rather too chubby to be worn with comfort for any length of time. While not being immune to losing reception sometimes as you move around, the sound quality of broadcasts is otherwise loud and clear with only the occasional buzz of interference. As the antenna for FM reception is the cord type which uses the headphone's wire, manipulating and repositioning this can cure many issues. With this in mind, beware of buying better headphones without testing them with the radio first, as not all will be suitable for this purpose. Admittedly only an occasional user, I am nevertheless reminded of that old Duracell advert every time I rummage for the radio and find it still works...you know, the one where the toy rabbit out drums the rest...for it is still operating on its original battery (not supplied) after all these years. This is another impressive product from Sony, who in my experience buck the trend by excelling at designing easy to use, dedicated single function devices, that prosper from concentrating on doing the one thing well.
Although headphones create more opportunities to listen to music when out and about or to avoid annoying others, they can be uncomfortable and risk damaging your hearing when used for too long. There's also nothing quite like being able to blast your sounds out now and again when the fancy takes you, which isn't always when you're sat in front of the HIFI at home. When my wife utters the immortal phrase 'I've been thinking...', my heart usually sinks and I break out into a cold sweat. More often than not, she has dreamt up some radical transformation for the house that is either fiendishly difficult or beyond the reach of our pockets. This time she wanted music in the garden for a forthcoming barbecue, and was envisaging me disentangling the bulky HIFI from the rest of the entertainment system in the lounge and taking it out there. At times like this, I count my blessings for the life saver that is Google. My mission was to find some portable speakers that a MP3 player could connect to, which weren't too expensive and could be powered by batteries if necessary. The Logic3 I-Station 3 for £25 from the ever reliable Amazon seemed to be the ideal solution. First appearances are usually crucial where my wife is concerned, a notable exception being when she met me thankfully! If something doesn't look as expected or work as it should, it is usually given short shrift and discarded, never to be trusted again. So when we unpacked the speakers and realised for the first time how small they were, I feared the worst. At 16cm x 3cm x 11.2cm (WxDxH) surely these would not be able to pack the punch to suit my wife's unforgiving ear. The i-Station 3 is specially designed with iPod usage in mind, offering connectivity for all models of the 'Classic', 'Nano' and 'Touch' that have a dock connector, although other audio devices can be attached as well. The shiny black unit is folded flat in the box, but stands up by pushing a button on the front to drop its central section, which doubles as the iPod docking interface and a balancing leg. Its two 3 watt speakers are left and right of this, protected by clear plastic travel covers that open like doors when the unit is in use. The unit is powered either by AC Adaptor or four AA batteries (not included). A 3.5mm line in cable is included so that a MP3 player can be connected to the jack situated on the back and a USB cable so that a docked iPod can be charged or synchronised with iTunes. Unlike the iPod, MP3 players can't be charged or synchronised while connected to the unit, which isn't ideal and can bring a premature end to your enjoyment. So...it was with bated breath that I connected the MP3 player, switched on the speakers and adjusted the volumes of both to bring the sound through. I needn't have worried. While not reaching the decibels of our HIFI, its full range dynamic speakers nevertheless deliver a loud, yet crystal clear sound that doesn't distort as you crank up the volume. It can be a bit puzzling what to do with your 'daisy chained' MP3 player which trails behind the unit, but among the various adaptors for the docking interface is an indented blank cover that shuts it off and can make an improvised resting place. As well as coming in useful throughout the house and garden, the speakers fold so compactly they can easily be taken with you. As they take up no more room than a book or DVD, they can easily be slipped into your luggage when going on holiday. We've had these speakers for three years now and they still look and sound as good as new, which is remarkable as they are often subject to drunken fumbling in outdoor party situations. We have never needed to use batteries, as the unit has always been in range of either a socket or an extension cable, so I can't comment on battery consumption. However, it is always a good idea to invest in a couple of sets of rechargeable batteries and a charger, if like us you have a number of battery thirsty devices in the house. You will be amazed at the quality of sound that comes out of these little speakers and will rarely feel the need to connect your player to anything else. It can certainly be true what they say...that many good things come in small packages!
I must admit that I have always taken my various flexible friends for granted, probably because I've had so many of them over the years and they all do roughly the same thing. After all, it's hard to get enthusiastic about a piece of plastic that just allows you to time shift your payment for goods and services to a more convenient time. All that changed though when I got to know the Play.com credit card. I must confess to being what is commonly known as a rate tart, someone who regularly moves their debt around from one 0% introductory credit card offer to the next to avoid paying any interest. This isn't as rewarding as it used to be since the advent of the balance transfer fee, now charged by the vast majority of card providers, but is still usually worth doing. This is how I first began to use the Play.com credit card. I usually operate with two credit cards, an old faithful for day to day purchases and a bit on the side for emergencies. Nearing the end of one offer, I was looking for my next victim to shoulder what was left of the unexpected outlay for our new central heating boiler. With 0% interest for six months on balance transfers, nine months on purchases and a 1.5% balance transfer fee, it shone out like a beacon amongst all the other 3% fee cards. However, its best feature wasn't fully appreciated until I had to add some extortionate MOT work to the debt...its reward points. One point is awarded for every pound spent - double if shopping at Play.com - and once 1000 points have been accumulated, the balance can be exchanged for a £10 Play.com voucher, meaning a 1% return on money you were spending anyway. You can allow the points to build if you wish and redeem in multiples of 500 points, so for example 2500 points would get you a £25 voucher. There is also a bonus of 1500 points if you spend £150 in the first 90 days, a whopping 10% return. The cost of the CV Boot meant that I earned these in one fell swoop! This card works really well for me as I already do a lot of shopping at Play.com, finding them to be the cheapest site for many things, especially DVD's. I also find it more rewarding to be able to go online and redeem the points at regular intervals, rather than having to wait for the annual award from my old faithful cashback card, which rounds down to the nearest £5. As I am always either in a 0% interest deal or paying a card off in full each month, it also means I earn from them and they get nothing from me, which is a nice arrangement! Another thing I like about the card is that it uses the new Faster Payment System (FPS), which means you can make your payment online as late as the day before the due date and it will still arrive in time. This also means that purchases can hit the account within a few hours, which makes it quicker to check transactions for extra peace of mind and easier to work out the likely statement amount for budgeting purposes. The whole process from application to payment is done online, so you need to be comfortable with managing your finances that way before proceeding. Statements are also paperless and received by email, so it's important to check your inbox carefully and regularly to avoid missing deadlines. The online service is easy to set up and use, benefiting from additional security measures such as a site key, an image you choose that will appear during log on to reassure that you are using their legitimate site. The card is issued by MBNA Europe, which is worth bearing in mind as they administer cards on behalf of many organisations and a balance transfer can't be made between two of their accounts. Once the introductory offers are over, it has a representative APR of 16.9%, which is an average sort of rate. I was so impressed with the card that when it came to moving our debt along, I promoted the bit on the side to become my significant other. Making use of credit facilities is not a step to be taken lightly and requires some discipline and willpower. However used sensibly for your every day purchases, this credit card will work for you and entertain with its rewards.
Some people get wiser with age...I've just got a damn sight craftier. You don't move a chess piece without considering the possible repercussions several steps ahead, so I always try to foresee the likely chain of events before embarking on a certain course of action in life. Applying this logic to shopping for presents, I don't buy anything that doesn't also suit me. Not so that I can borrow it, I hasten to add...although this has influenced me with the occasional box set or music CD that we have a mutual liking for. Rather to avoid setting myself up for a lot of grief. So when my wife wanted a MP3 player, there was no way she was going to get an iPod! George Michael sung about being 'Once bitten, twice shy' and having tussled with iTunes when the kids were little and remembering its frustrations, I had no intention of putting myself in that position again. You see in our family, if something can't be achieved in a few clicks or button presses, I am the one to be summoned, being seen as the authority for all things remotely techie. Sometimes my services are fast tracked by even missing out that miserable token effort. So the quest was to find something my wife could merrily use self sufficiently. I have these reality slips from time to time! Still available at around the £30 mark, the Sony NWZ-B135 could have been made to measure for us. It connects to the computer via its own inbuilt USB connector, has no software to install and fiddle with being recognised as a mass storage device that opens its own drive window and supports the straightforward drag and drop of files from your music folders. As it can play WMA files, tracks can be ripped off CDs using any version of Windows Media Player without having to do any converting. It also charges while in the USB port and within three minutes has built up ninety minutes play time. It couldn't be more straightforward to use...right? Well...yes and no really. One thing I underestimated was that my wife's lack of patience is matched by only one thing...her total apathy towards some of life's more mundane tasks. With a look of disdain, she reminded me 'that's what I keep you for'. Oh well, I tried! Available in either blue, red or black, the player is roughly the size, shape and weight of a cigarette lighter, making it very light and compact to carry around. On one end of the device is the 3.5mm jack that headphones connect to and at the other is the USB connector, covered by a cap that just clicks into place. A small rectangular 2 x 1 cm window on the left hand side of the unit displays the contents of the player, accessible by easy to navigate menu options controlled by buttons on the right. Most of the navigation is done using just four buttons: a big circular one that quadruples as an 'On', 'Play', 'Enter' and 'Pause' button, smaller ones above and below it that tab up and down or sideways depending which part of the menu you are in and a tiny 'Back' key alongside. The device has the same folder hierarchy as a computer, so music can remain organised the same way after transfer if you drag and drop entire folders. Music can be found by artist, album, genre or release year (if this information is tagged), play lists can be created or random shuffle play can be chosen. During play, the name of the track scrolls on the top line of the display, with the name of its folder static underneath it. With 2GB of space, there is room for around 500 songs, which will be deceivingly ample for the needs of many, having surprisingly found that I'd only utilised three quarters of its capacity. Although I suppose there is a limit to the number of songs in the cheesy pop genre, which seems to make up most of my wife's collection! Music stays on the player until you choose to delete it, unlike with an iPod, where there is the risk of it getting unwittingly over-written when synchronising if the contents of the music folder change. It can also be transferred back to source easily if, for example, you suffer a data loss on your computer or get a new one. The neighbours can testify that the player can belt out a good tune, having connected it to our hi-fi too regularly for their liking. The headphones that are bundled with it are the basic sort that most will probably get along with, although my wife found that they didn't fit her ears and were uncomfortable. That, as you may remember, was another story. I was already of the opinion that iPods were over hyped, over fussy and over priced, and this impressive little device certainly reinforced that view. Its simple, no nonsense functionality keeps maintenance to the minimum and lets you concentrate on getting pleasure from your music rather than it becoming a chore.
I wouldn't say I have a very demanding palate, but still have my likes and dislikes, as we all do to some extent or other. I am even less fussy where soft drinks are concerned, having tried umpteen flavours, varieties and brands over the years and can only once recall disliking something to the point of not being able to drink it. Little did I know that the demon Vimto would trick itself back into my glass to torment me again years later! I must admit to having been spoilt as a child, with a constant flow of Ribena on tap to quench my thirst. The harsh realities of adulthood and tight household budgets has meant that this premium blackcurrant drink can now only get bought when it's on offer, a litre bottle typically being £2.80. None of its cheaper rivals have quite reached its syrupy, refreshing excellence since, least of all a certain bottle of Schweppes Blackcurrant Cordial. Like a wolf in sheep's clothing, a bottle of Schweppes Blackcurrant Cordial looks quite inviting at first glance. Its purple label is illustrative of the product's supposed main ingredient and the yellow Schweppes logo oozes the reassurance associated with buying a well known, global brand. The contents visible through the clear plastic bottle are deep in colour and suggestive of a rich and flavoursome drink. 'Pleasure of Mixing' is the Schweppes motto...I beg to differ! As with most concentrated drinks that require diluting, the suggested mix is one part cordial to four parts water, with advice that it should be made weaker than this for youngsters. I always find that the recommended mixture when diluting cordials is too wishy-washy for my taste buds, so usually make them a bit stronger than this. Big, big mistake in this case! We always fill our chilled water dispenser in the fridge with spring water, which helps to make a lovely cold, refreshing, cryptosporidium-free drink, ideal for this sort of situation. Feeling particularly parched, I took a large gulp of the mixture in eager anticipation...only to choke, splutter and spit it out in horror! "That's bloomin' Vimto"! Not being a conscientious reader of product labels, I grabbed the bottle and looked at the ingredients for the first time. Vimto being made out of an infusion of grapes, raspberries and blackcurrants, I expected to see that other fruits had been added to the blackcurrants to make the drink cheaper, so explaining the unmistakeably pungent taste and tell-tale tingle in throat. I couldn't have been more wrong. For no fruits at all had been sacrificed in the making of this drink. The ingredients are: Water, sugar, citric acid, colours (caramel E150d, arthocyanins), acidity regulator (E331), flavourings, preservatives (E211, E202), sweeteners (aspartame, sodium saccharin). Also contains a source of phenylalanine. Each 250ml serving, made as recommended, contains 35 calories (2% of GDA), 7.8 grams of sugar (9% of GDA) and no fat. With no actual fruit content, none of the sugar is naturally present and is all added, making it particularly bad for your teeth. Therefore, if your children do like the taste of this drink, it is advisable for them to drink it with meals and through a straw to minimise the threat of decay. My intention was to take it back, as surely a mistake had been made at the factory and the wrong flavourings had been put in. Had I not just completed the nerve fraught weekly shop, I probably would have done, as I'm a principled soul with a sometimes irritating inclination to complain. Heavily paraphrasing the wife there! Instead, it sat in the fridge for several weeks, occasionally being taken out to ply unsuspecting visitors with, who all agreed, albeit under some inadmissible duress, that it was indeed Vimto. I am now left with the impression that Schweppes are to be avoided where cordials are concerned, my recollection of the more well known products in their range over the years being carbonated drinks. In the interests of thorough review writing, I maybe should have bought another bottle to see if it had indeed been part of a rogue batch. You just can't get dedicated review writers these days. Instead, I have now picked up with a blackcurrant drink in the Morrisons 'High Juice' range to see how this interacts with my taste buds. In the words of Harry Hill...'There's only one way to find out...FIGHT!
Those who have read some of my reviews before, may recall that I have been converting one of the bedrooms into a little games room, with some gnashing of teeth...and such a set up wouldn't be complete without a dartboard, which became the second addition to it. Purpose of the game Darts is played on a board with segments numbered one to twenty, each divided into singles, doubles and trebles, with a bulls eye in the middle itself split into an outer (worth 25 points) and an inner (worth 50 points). When played competitively, two players take turns to throw three darts each, with the objective of scoring 501 points and finishing on the appropriate double or bulls eye the quickest. The ultimate aim is to keep scoring the three dart 'maximum' of 180 points and complete the game in the fewest throws, the minimum possible being the elusive nine dart finish. Choosing the right dartboard If like me you are serious about the indoor sports you play, you will want to make sure you buy quality equipment that lasts, rather than poor imitations that don't. Having already made a gaffe or two with the snooker table, I was determined to get it right this time. Three key elements to a good dartboard is the material it is made of, the wiring system it uses and how this is attached to the board. This will determine how well the dart sticks into the board and how long it will last. Tournament boards will be described as made of 'bristle', with thin 'blade' cut into the board instead of the thicker, stapled wire that can cause frustrating 'bounce outs'. Boards in pubs and clubs are made similarly, but are likely to have stapled 'diamond' wires, which are at least angled to help deflect the dart in instead of out. The 'bristle' on the board's surface is made of compressed sisal fibres that part to allow the dart in, but then close again when it is taken out. This has the effect of 'healing' the holes and prolonging the life of the board. So...find some or all of these words in a product description...'bristle', 'blade' or 'diamond' and 'staple free'...and you will be heading in the right direction. A board endorsed by the British Darts Organisation is another good sign. I narrowed down my choice to either the 'Winmau Blade' or the 'Winmau Diamond'. Thinking there was around a £10 difference between the two boards and mindful of making it an affordable Christmas present, I decided to make it known I wanted the 'Winmau Diamond', available for £20 from Argos. This had the added advantage that it was bound to attract the interest of the female members of the family, who had no idea to start with that they would be shopping for a dartboard! Set Up What completely took me by surprise was the weight of the dartboard and its depth. At around five kilos and four centimetres deep, this isn't something you can just hang behind a door. The board needs to be mounted on a solid wall that you can drill a hole into, plug and bracket...not a thin partition wall between bedrooms. It's therefore advisable that you plan this in advance and also ensure that you can achieve a throwing distance of 2.37 metres. The instructions that came with it are a little sketchy and poorly translated in places. However, there is a small diagram that is quite clear and covers most of the things you need to know. I must admit to eyeing the fixing kit with a little trepidation. Nailing three leaf springs onto the back of your new dartboard is a little nerve racking, especially for someone with questionable DIY skills. These act as shock absorbers to stop the board rattling as the darts hit it. Luckily there is a pre-drilled hole on the back of the board for the countersunk screw, which slots into the groove of the wall mounted bracket. This screw may need to be loosened or tightened to get the board flush to the wall. If you got the measurements right, the bracket will be positioned at the right height so that when the screw is resting in it, the bulls eye of the board is 1.73 metres from the ground. Put to the test The dartboard comes with a set of brass darts...unfortunately only one, so they have to be shared if you are having a proper game. A serious player may want to invest in a set of tungsten darts, as these are slimmer and therefore easier to group. From the first throw the quality of the board is obvious, the darts making a satisfying clunk as they hit it. Although the bulls eye is staple free on this board, the doubles and trebles aren't, so although it benefits from the angled, high tensile, diamond wires, there is still the occasional 'bounce out'. The bristle fibres do minimise the damage to the board, although this isn't immediately apparent as holes do seem to be left, but you later find that many of them disappear. It is still recommended that you turn the board periodically so that it wears evenly, the number ring being adjustable. This isn't covered in the instructions, but it looks as if the number ring just pops out of the four nylon clips holding it in place. Extras As you play, you may find that you need additional accessories. One I recommend you buy at the same time as the dartboard is a surround to protect your wall. I didn't do this and regretted it, as I started to miss the board when going for doubles playing 'Around the Clock'. I bought a circular foam surround for around £15 that is a tight fit and just pushes into place, but a cabinet is another option to consider. Ironically, since fitting the surround, I haven't missed the board at all! Another useful acquisition is a darts tune up kit. You will find that as you get better and start grouping your darts closer together, you will damage the nylon shafts that hold the flights. The tune up kit I bought for £8 has over 200 pieces, including replacement shafts, flights and springs. Although I have now realised that I could have bought the staple free 'Blade' dartboard for just a few quid more, I am very satisfied with the one I've got. While there are some 'bounce outs', these are much fewer than I remember from playing the game in pubs many years ago. I find getting a realistic feel out of the sports equipment I use beneficial to my game...if you are the same, you too can possibly winmau!
Peppers...ugh! There was a time when I would only have pizza freshly made at a parlour, where I could choose my own toppings to avoid the loathsome things. The ubiquitous pepper, in all its various colours and flavours, was probably the main reason why I had never quite taken to any particular frozen pizza. No matter which one you picked up with, you would find a fair sprinkling of them when you took it out of the packaging. That is until the day I picked up with a Dr Oetker Ristorante Pizza. The initial attraction had been that the pizza was on offer, quite a common event with this range if you are patient and shop around a bit. I have maximum prices in mind for all goods and won't spend £2 or above for a frozen pizza. Although the standard price can be anything up to £2.50, they are sometimes available for as little as £1.25, as they were on the day I first tried them. The 'Ristorante' range is available in seven varieties: Mozzarella-----------------------------Mozzarella, Edam and tomatoes Pollo------------------------------------Chicken, spinach, tomatoes and cheese Funghi----------------------------------Mushrooms, tomatoes and Mozzarella cheese Speciale--------------------------------Ham, salami and cheese Vegetale Piccante--------------------Jalapenos, peppers, red onions and cheese Hawaii----------------------------------Ham and pineapple Quattro Formaggi--------------------Edam, Emmental, Gorgonzola and Mozzarella The first one I actually tried was the 'Mozzarella', but my taste buds weren't fully engaged until they were introduced to the 'Funghi'. Although pleased that there wasn't a pepper in sight, I was still a little wary as I usually favour the soft, thick bases of the pizza parlour and these were contrastingly crispy and thin. So thin that the cooking time is half that of most pizzas and can easily be burnt by the unwary. I discovered that it only needed ten minutes in my fan assisted oven for it to be not too crispy for my tastes. However bite into one and the taste infusion is orgasmic, a combination of garlic and herbs complementing a generous helping of mushrooms. There's isn't too much cheese either, so you're not fighting to pull in and chew string upon string of it. Contrast this with the 'Mozzarella', which has a similar flavour, but has large discs of cheese on it that can become too tough and get dragged off the pizza in full as you bite it. Who wants to fill up on crust when there is such tasty toppings as these to feast on. Naturally, I haven't tried the pepper infested 'Vegetale Piccante' or the 'Hawaii', whose pineapple topping I find an equally abhorrent thought. I blame this aversion to what I call with a shudder 'cooked fruit', to being force fed home made gooseberry tarts by my grandma at a very young age. This means I have since avoided such things as apple pies, Christmas pudding and fruit cake. I also haven't seen the 'Quattro Formaggi' at the stores I shop at. It is little wonder that we favour the 'Funghi' pizza the most, having something of a mushroom fetish in our family, which results in them getting added to many recipes where others probably wouldn't. A measure of how much we enjoy the pizza, is the lengths I will go to in order to keep stocked up with them. I have been known to log on to 'Mysupermarket.com' to look out for BOGOF offers and then go there to buy them by the dozen, much to the astonishment of the checkout staff. The state of our arteries doesn't bear thinking about! Which takes me nicely onto the content analysis. The ingredients of the 'Funghi' pizza are: Wheat flour 24% tomato puree 16% mushrooms 16% cheese (firmed Mozzarella, Edam) Water Vegetable oil Vegetable fat Yeast Iodised salt Sugar Modified starch Hydrolysed soya protein Garlic Parsley Oregano Caramelized sugar Dextrose Glucose syrup Mushroom powder Lactic acid Flavouring The whole pizza contains 43% of your recommended daily calorie intake and 64% of the fat, so beware if like me you need to eat it all to satisfy your appetite. It is also suitable for vegetarians.
When our son decided it was time to take the plunge and leave home, it left a big space to fill in more ways than one. When our daughter left, it was agreed that we would turn her bedroom into a laundry room, so I figured I was in a strong bargaining position this time around. Resisting attempts from my wife to steer me towards an office, I decided I would rather like a games room, with a snooker table the first addition. Mistake No 1 Before starting shopping, I thought I had taken everything into consideration, although my wife did express concern when she saw me disappearing into the room with a tape measure. After all, this was the tape measure that had encouraged me to order twelve feet square of carpet rather than ten a few years ago. My reasoning this time was that if a six foot by three single bed had fitted in there with plenty to spare, so would a snooker table of similar dimensions. On the strength of this irrefutable logic, I decided to order the BCE Six Foot Foldaway Snooker Table for half the price it should have been at £150. If only I had stumbled sooner across a very useful website, advising that a six foot snooker table requires a room fourteen feet by eleven for cueing. A player of some thirty years experience should really have thought of that himself though. This was to make certain shots impossible without some creative thinking. The cues supplied are two piece ones, so I unscrewed one and added an old extension butt to the top piece. Shorter cues can also be bought for people with the same space issues, although some shots can still be impossible. Mistake No 2 One thing I still strenuously deny is that my expectations of the product were too high and how dare the sales manager even suggest it. I knew a little bit about how various snooker tables were made and had appreciated in advance what the shortcomings of an affordable table would be. For instance, I knew that for the money I would not get very responsive cushions as the rubber is fixed to wooden blocks rather than steel. Neither would the pace of the table be realistic, as the bed would be made of MDF rather than slate. What I think I was entitled to expect is that the playing area would be flat. As the table doesn't have adjustable feet, I spent hours putting slithers of cardboard under the legs in a vain attempt to level it. In the end, I borrowed my father-in-law's spirit level to see where I was going wrong. It was then that I made a startling discovery. The spirit level actually lost contact with the table around the pink spot. From there to the top cushion, was a slope that Franz Klammer would have relished! Good at stumbling across useful websites after the event, I discovered another one that explains the tendency for a MDF bed to warp, although it did say this would be in time. Mistake No 3 So it was that I had the aforementioned conversation with the sales manager. He eventually agreed to replace the table, which presented a challenge in itself, as the packaging was by now probably sitting on a supermarket shelf as a row of corn flake packets. He made the absurd suggestion that we unpack the new table and slip the old one into this packaging while the delivery driver was there. As it had taken us an hour or two to wrestle the very bulky, heavy items out of the packaging in the first place, this was a non starter. Eventually common sense prevailed and he agreed to book a separate collection for the following day. This ought to be the stage where I say that all was well that ended well, and in celebration I triumphantly knocked in a 147 clearance at my first visit to the new table. Alas, the replacement table was also warped, albeit not quite as severely. This time the bow in the table was just from the black spot and I maybe foolishly decided to make the best of it. I now argue, with tongue in cheek, that it actually makes the game a greater test of skill, having to allow for the curve of the ball towards the top corner pockets. However, I no longer attempt to play a full game of either snooker or pool, as the balls tend to annoyingly accumulate on the top cushion. Instead, I set myself potting challenges, such as clearing the colours off their spots. On the face of it, the table looks the part, looking very sturdy and well made. Although coming as a flat pack requiring assembly, the process of screwing its four legs and supports to the body of the table was a relatively easy task using the allen key and its bolts. Something that was managed in double quick time, the second time around. The table has folding legs with castors, so that it can be wheeled away and leant up against a wall. However, I leave it permanently set up, not least because of the amount of cardboard under its feet. All the accessories you would expect are bundled and are of good quality, including two 48" cues, a set of snooker balls and six additional yellows for English pool. There are also two triangles for 10 and 15 ball set up, two pieces of chalk and a rail brush. A bag fastened at one end of the table can store the accessories and slots underneath house the cues. BCE make tournament tables and I wouldn't have expected them to put their good name to a table prone to such defects. As it usually retails around the £300 mark, it is certainly not intended to be a toy. Like a tennis court without lines or a putting green without a hole, a snooker table that isn't flat isn't really fit for purpose. Furthermore, the motto of the company I bought the table from is 'Real Sports for Real Players', which suggested to me that they sold serious, quality sports equipment. In reality, I could have spent much less and bought a kids knockabout from the supermarket with the same results.
Not being a fan of shoot 'em ups, I took some persuading to give 'Link's Crossbow Training' a try. Having seen some of the gore fests that my son has played on over the years, that isn't surprising. However, it soon became apparent from furtive glances around my newspaper that I was missing a chance to show off my hand-eye coordination, so I bit the bullet (or should I say bolt) and had a go. Before long, I too was fighting over the controller and frenziedly blasting all manner of disgusting creatures. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was nothing particularly blood curdling about this game, my daughter reliably informing me that it is based on characters and scenarios from 'The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess'. This meant that nothing worth preserving was harmed in the course of game play. Sorry to any herpetologists out there! The object of the game is to shoot bolts from a crossbow at a variety of still and moving targets and enemies - in a limited time span - to score points, set high scores and earn medals. Your Mii avatar can be used to identify you as a player and show your high scores and medal positions. The game comes with an accessory called the 'Wii Zapper', which the Wii remote and Nunchuck sit in and attach to, simulating a crossbow. The sensor bar picks up the travel of the Wii remote inside the 'Zapper' and moves cross hairs on the screen accordingly. The button underneath it engages the 'B' button of the Wii remote to fire and the control stick of the Nunchuck is handily positioned above the near most handle and moves the character around. While not essential, the accessory adds to the feel that you are actually shooting. There are nine levels of three stages apiece, and each stage can be played individually in 'Practice' mode, or as a three stage level in 'Score Attack' mode. While there is a 'Multiplayer' mode, it doesn't support simultaneous game play. Medals range from bronze to platinum, depending on the points scored. Each level has a stage with a set of targets to hit, one where you defend a position from attack and another where you do the attacking to seek and destroy enemies. You have your aim tested by firing at targets from horseback, reactions probed shooting flying skulls like clay pigeons and speed examined combing a forest for giant spiders. The optimum score for each stage can be obtained by making every hit consecutively, which earns points in ever increasing multiples...as long as you yourself aren't struck. The faster you go, the more objects there are to hit...and in some stages there are also bonus points for each second spare after clearing all the enemies. Sometimes, managing to shoot a certain object (I shall not say what!) opens up a different final sequence to the stage, providing a greater number of scoring opportunities. There are few annoyances with this game, except with yourself. Sometimes you hit something in the foreground that shouldn't be in the way, shots register as a miss if made just as a phase is changing and some walls mysteriously disappear as the graphics glitch. However, the crossbow accessory is comfortable to hold and easy to use; shooting is accurate and movement realistic. The difficulty with this game isn't hitting everything you should in a stage and completing it...after a few runs you will roughly know where they all are. It is doing this without missing and in the quickest possible time that will keep you up until the wee small hours, obsessively striving to regain the highest score or upgrade a medal. Preserving your consecutive hit combo can be especially tricky in some stages. The armour plated 'Darknut' is virtually impossible to damage with every shot; the circling, winged reptiles in 'City in the Sky Defence' are fiendishly difficult to hit and you can be shot by creatures off screen while defending the 'Carriage Escort' from a seething mass of firing lizards. What the game lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in longevity. There may be fewer stages than some are used to, but its emphasis on point scoring means that there are 27 high scores to defend or attack. I would say only 'Mario Kart Wii' rivals this game, as something that you never tire of going back to and playing again and again. Already one of the cheaper Wii games available, this makes it exceptional value for money.
If you've ever tried to stop smoking, you may have at some stage used a pen as a comforter for fingers and mouth. Better than nothing, but requiring a bit too much imagination, I would have thought. Just think how much more effective it could have been if it had looked, tasted and behaved the same as a cigarette. Step forward the electronic cigarette and take a bow. I bought one for my wife from miniciggy.com a few years ago, knowing that she would at least appreciate the quirky novelty value of it, but also in the hope that it would encourage her to stop smoking. The e-cigarette consists of a battery, an atomizer and a nicotine cartridge that slot and screw together. It came with a mains charger and ten cartridge refills, the whole package costing £19.99. As it contains no tobacco and isn't lit, it is less harmful to your health and legal to 'smoke' in establishments where smoking is prohibited. Caution: The jury is still out as to how much less harmful this therapy is, in depth studies not yet available. At first glance an assembled e-cigarette looks like the real thing. It's nicotine cartridge is a similar shade of brown to a filter, the rest of it is white and the end glows orange when 'a draw' is taken. It also emits a vapour that replicates smoke and releases a shot of nicotine. The orange light also flashes in certain sequences to warn of either overuse or the need to recharge. On closer inspection it is about an inch longer, twice as thick and a fair bit heavier than a conventional 'Superking' cigarette. A mini ciggy it certainly aint! Cartridges come in three strengths: high, medium and low. However for someone with a serious habit, nothing less than the high strength will really hit the spot. As each cartridge is said to be equivalent to a packet of 20 and a pack of 50 cartridges can be bought for £17.99, the potential for saving is immense. It therefore seemed to tick all the boxes, but heavy smokers are a curious and fussy breed, with their own customs, vocabulary and a constant supply of excuses. The major grumble seemed to be that it lacked the consistent output of a traditional cigarette, sometimes giving you 'a gob full' and at other times 'hardly owt'. Approximately one in ten of the cartridges turned out to be duds that wouldn't yield anything at all. Another comment was that 'it doesn't hit the back of the throat', surely a good thing. It also seemed to be frustratingly out of charge when it was really needed...come to think of it, not much different to a mobile phone! The three heavy smokers of my acquaintance - wife, wife's best friend and daughter - seemed enthusiastic about it to start with, but never attempted to use it instead of buying their normal cigarettes. In reality it only really supplemented their intake and tangible savings never really materialised. It came into its own when we were out socialising in smoking free zones or to make a packet of 20 stretch until the shops opened. For me, it was worth the outlay just to see a succession of bar persons and bouncers come scurrying over and stop mid sentence when they realised it wasn't real. It begun to get used less and less often until one day, after a particularly long spell of inactivity, it started to respond erratically after coming off charge. This ultimately brought to an end the last shred of interest in the product, it now being stuffed in a drawer. Replacement parts are advertised prominently on the manufacturers website, suggesting they do commonly fail, but not knowing whether it was the battery or atomizer at fault and considering its dwindling usage, this avenue was never explored. Don't let that put you off giving it a try though. I believe that someone who is either not quite as heavily addicted or more committed to giving up, would find one of these very, very helpful. * There is now a newer model out that is said to address some of the shortcomings of the original - a so-called 'Maxi Ciggy' - intended for seriously heavy smokers, with a stronger, longer life cartridge and a charge lasting five times as long. However the starter pack for this one is much more expensive at around £50.