- Premium reviews
- Express reviews
- Reviews rated
- Ratings received
- Intro - All of my music is tucked safely on my hard drive. No easily scratchable CDs for me, no cassettes that will ware away in a year's time. Oh no, I much prefer my tunes carefully encoded bit by bit into lovely mp3 format. This being the case, I need a suitable way to manage and play said files. Thus, I need a media player. First on my list of options was Windows Media Player, sitting as it was on my hard drive, just waiting to be fed a tasty morsel of Metallica or a plentiful platter of Pink Floyd. However, being such an ugly beast I just couldn't bear to look at it for extended periods. Next up was Winamp, a real sleek and stylish model. But under the glossy exterior was an empty void in the form of non-existent file management tools. So, I was led to the product that this op is about ? Real Jukebox Plus. The feature list is impressive: file management, CD ripping, CD recording, 10-band equalizer, crossfading, skinability, 2500 radio stations and support for portable mp3 players. But what is this? A price? Surely you can?t be serious you say? Well, I am serious (and don?t call me Shirley). You will have to fork out $14.99 for this piece of software. If the idea of paying for a media player seems ridiculous, read on and you will see that in this case it is just about justified. - Download and setup - Before you can download the software you need to whip out your credit card and fill in the usual info such as name, address and of course card details. The download is pretty heavy ? 8.91 MB. This is mainly due to the fact that Real Player Basic is included in the download, which is required to listen to radio stations. Installation is the usual wizard interface, no real problems there. Configuring the player is also done through a wizard interface. You are prompted to select where your music is located, recording and ripping formats and miscellaneous visual settings. There are more settings that can b
e adjusted through the program?s preferences panel. One handy feature is the ability of the program to find all the music on your computer and catalogue it for you. This means that within minutes Jukebox is ready to roll. - Features - The program sorts your files based on their ID3 tags. Chances are that some of your files will have been tagged and others not. Jukebox provides its own tag editor to remedy this. The only things you really need to put in the tags is the track name, album name, track number and artist. Once you have done that (which can take sometime, although that is not really the fault of Jukebox) you can sort your music however you want ? album, artist whatever. The program also supports other tag elements ? year produced, genre etc. These are not really important, though. You can also create custom playlists with ease. mp3s sound pretty good with no adjustments to the default play settings. The typical anomalies that plague mp3 are still there however, but there?s not much that can be done about that. These problems mostly affect its clarity ? if you mostly play loud music you probably won?t notice. The equalizer only has a handful of default settings ? many of which sound questionable at best. If you learn how to use the equalizer properly, you can really use it to enhance your music. Basic advice with its use, however, is to enhance both the bass and treble a fair amount, which improves most music. The crossfade feature basically allows you to set tracks to fade in and out at the beginning and end, and to overlap by a set amount of time. In theory this can be used to make tracks seamlessly merge into one. However, it doesn?t really work with tracks that already fade in or out. You also find that sometimes tracks overlap by too much and you end up with a jumbled mess. Best turn this off. CD ripping is very fast. The program runs a test on your drive before you try to rip a CD, which basically optimises it for s
peed. You can even listen to the CD while it?s ripping, although I have a feeling that this is likely to reduce the quality of the rip. Ripped files have an audio quality comparable to any other software, so if quality were your primary concern I wouldn?t worry. You can rip into mp3 (32-320kbs), wave (i.e. with no compression, 1411kbs) or Real Audio (32-352kbs). Real Audio provides slightly better compression than mp3, but I?m reluctant to use it since it is not a standard format and is not supported by many other programs. A very useful feature when ripping is that if you are connected to the Internet, the program will check your CD, and then retrieve information about it from the CDDB (basically a huge collection of information on nearly every CD in existence). It then uses this information to automatically fill out the files? ID3 tags automatically. This saves a lot of time. The radio is one of the most impressive parts of the package. Real are most famous for providing streaming media technologies, and it shows. Radio streams have quality very close to traditional radio on a typical 56kbs connection, and on faster connections near-CD quality is achievable. The technology automatically adjusts itself to provide the best quality your connection can handle. In terms of range of stations, there are over 2500 to choose from, covering just about every type of music imaginable. The stations are generally high quality, many having full-time DJs playing the tunes. Like many similar programs, a number of ?visualizations? are available, which give visible representations of your music. There are not a great number to choose from, although those that are there are excellent. My favourite is ?cosmic?, which has you flying around space. However, special note must be given to Annabelle. Who is Annabelle? A sheep. Yup, that is correct. Not just any sheep, though. This one can dance, and will quite happily dance along to your music. A joy to behold. U
nfortunately I was unable to test the CD recording feature since I do not posses a CDR drive. However, it apparently allows you to create CDs straight from mp3s which are playable in all CD drives. I am not sure about this, since I know a number of other programs that claim the same thing and fall short. I was also unable to test the ability of the program to interact with portable devices, since again I do not own one. - Interface - The interface is on the bland and functional side, which I personally prefer. A central window dominates the display, showing file lists, CD track lists, radio stations or whatever is relevant to what you are doing. These file lists work just like those in explorer. You can drag and drop files around, sort by a particular column etc. Above this window are the play controls (play, stop, pause, next, previous, shuffle and repeat). Also present are the standard volume controls, panning bar and handy quick links to the equalizer and crossfade tools. On top of this basic interface you have the option of adding additional features. A tool bar can be added that gives you one click access to the main parts of the program. A window can also be added that shows your files in a tree-like structure for easy navigation. Less useful options include a built in web pane that is used to display information about the song that is currently playing, which is retrieved from Real?s site. More often, however, this pane just displays general information about the band, which after viewing for the seventeenth time begins to get boring. It also hogs your bandwidth, so you would be well advised to turn this off. The point is that the interface is highly customisable. If you like lots of bloated features you can have them. If, however, you want a streamlined application you can have that too. As a side note there is not one ad throughout the entire program, even in the web-based parts, which makes a refreshing change. Although, having p
aid good money for it I suppose it should be expected. But what if you don?t like the fairly bog-standard, dull, Windows-like interface provided? Well, there are small adjustments that can be made to brighten it up, such as different colours and background images. If you want more then you can apply a skin, which changes the interface completely. There are a fair number to choose from on Real?s site, although nothing compared to the thousands available for Winamp. Those available are fairly varied, however, from the functional to the ludicrous. They are all well produced, since all skins must be approved by Real before they are published. - Final thoughts - Although I have been mostly singing the praises of this program, I must come back to the price issue. OK, so $14.99 is not a lot, but when you consider the power that some free programs provide, it isn?t so good. Take MusicMatch Jukebox. That provides very similar features for nothing. It doesn?t have quite the refinement of Real?s effort, but they can still stand shoulder to shoulder. The way Microsoft is pushing its media player may also scare people away from Real. This is becoming more of an issue in the soon to be released Windows XP which integrates Media Player into the OS. It?s the browser wars all over again, and just like Netscape, Real may fall by the wayside. If these things don?t bother you, well great. If you go ahead and buy it you won?t be disappointed. I have used it for several weeks now and have never looked back. It is just so easy to use and yet so powerful. It provides all your music functions in one place and it doesn?t encroach on you the way Media Player does. If you don?t want to pay, then as I have already mentioned MusicMatch Jukebox may be for you. But whatever you do, promise me you will stay away from Windows Media Player!
There are many ways of chatting in real time over the 'net. The most popular method is using an instant messenger (such as ICQ). The less well-known but much older option is IRC (internet relay chat). But what are you to do if you have friends using different IM networks and also want to chat on IRC? Running several clients at once is not only a drain on system resources but is also difficult to manage. Here's where Trillian comes in. It is a single program that integrates the four big IM networks (ICQ, AIM, Yahoo and MSN) and IRC into one interface. I was more than a little sceptical about this, having previously tried Jabber (which does a similar thing) and having experienced numerous problems with the network operators trying to block Jabber's connections to their networks. AOL is particularly notorious for not allowing third-party clients to operate. Happily, I experienced none of these problems with Trillian. How it avoids them I don't know, I just hope that it continues to do so. Having five different mediums to manage, Trillian does an admirable job of making them feel seamless, especially IRC which is rather different to the others. For instance, all your IM contacts are combined into a single list. That is easy enough, and to be expected. What I didn't expect was that this list can also include IRC contacts. The idea of an IRC contact list has not existed before, and is something that Trillian has added itself, and is pretty handy. Another feature that promotes the single feel are the status settings. Setting your status to 'away' for example sets your status as such on all the IM networks AND IRC. This integration comes with a price, however. The more advanced features of the various IM networks are unavailable in Trillian, such as ICQ's SMS paging and MSN's Net2Phone. I never used these features anyway, although I know that some people do. The IRC client is actually pretty well featured, altho
ugh mIRC junkies will find its lack of configuration options limiting. It does have some features that mIRC does not, such as visual representation of many things that would normally be typed at the command line. If, for instance, you operate a channel yourself, you can set all its options (such as topic, password etc) in a nice dialogue box. The other main attraction of Trillian is that it is skinable. The default skin is very attractive (although rather clunky) and there are many more to download from the site. You are sure to get it looking how you want (even if you want it ?skinless?, check out the ?Windows Standard? skin). Trillian is still in beta, and as such there are still a number of problems. It crashes occasionally, although normally only when closing so it isn?t too much of an issue. It also has a tendency to forget some of your IRC settings, particularly the last server you connected to. This is especially annoying if you always connect to the same server. Other than that, though, there really aren?t that many niggles to be found, which is pretty impressive. I have been using Trillian for over a month now, and it has simplified my communications no end. If you are like me and need to work on more than one of the supported networks at once, you should definitely give it a try. If, however, you only use one then will be missing out on a lot of Trillian?s best features, so you might be better off sticking with the official client unless you really hate how it looks. One thing is for sure, though. It has earned itself a permanent place in my system tray, and not many apps have gained that honour!
With the Napster file sharing network now so heavily restricted, many have been on the search for an alternative. And there has been no shortage of alternatives either. Audiogalaxy is one of these, and in my opinion it is one of the best. Let me expand on that. Audiogalaxy distinguishes itself from the competition in a number of ways. Whilst most other networks allow you to share any type of file, Audiogalaxy - as the name suggests - only allows the sharing of audio files. This may seem like a disadvantage at first, but in fact it means that it can specialise in this area particularly well. The other difference is that rather than just allow the user to search the files of those other users that are currently online, you can actually search files who?s users are offline. This gives you a much greater choice of files, which is particularly handy when trying to find more obscure files. If you try to download a file when its owner is offline, it is simply queued until they come online. The process of finding a file is as simple as it should be. Type the track/artist name and click search. The results are then displayed, but rather cleverly. Rather than simply listing many of the same files many times, similar files are replaced by a single entry. Upon clicking this entry, you are prompted to select a bitrate. The program then selects among the available files to find the one that is likely to download the fastest. This means that you generally get very speedy downloads, which is often a problem with peer to peer networks. Better yet, if you get disconnected from the network whilst downloading, the download will resume upon reconnecting - even if the user you started the download with is no longer available! The process of sharing your files is slightly rougher. Once you have specified the directories to share, it takes a little time for the system to recognise them. More irritating is the way it names your music. As I have already mentione
d, Audiogalaxy treats your files as music - giving them an artist and track name. How it does this is slightly unclear. It doesn?t use the file?s ID3 tag as you might expect, but uses a combination of the file name and path - initially my files had names like ?Americana Music - Offspring? - strange. In the end I had to rename all my mp3s so that they got represented properly. All the small irritations mentioned thus far could be overlooked if it were not for this last one - the service becomes unbelievably busy in the evenings. In fact, from around 5pm to the early hours of the next morning, you cannot login at all. Hopefully this is something that will be sorted before long. Audiogalaxy has become my pick of the file sharing bunch. Everything about it is well designed and efficient. It?s just a shame that it only works 12 hours a day.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 (henceforth known as THPS 2) is more than just the first playable and enjoyable skateboarding game (and even, possibly, the first skateboarding game ever). It has also popularised the sport in this country, to the point where you can no longer walk down the south bank without coming across countless teenagers breaking their bones in their failed attempts to pop-shove it and 50-50 the stair rail. It is no surprise, then, that a sequel is on its way in a matter of months. But we are not quite done with this version yet, as after having been released on every other platform you may care to mention, we now have a Gameboy Advance version. I was, to say the least, apprehensive about this release. Having played the PC version to death, I was unsure as to whether I would find anything new here. This fear was worsened when I discovered that the game would be a near-straight conversion of the PC version. I was also concerned that the GBA hardware would not be able to replicate the true THPS experience in all the speed and style that we had seen before. I am pleased to find, however, that I have been proved (at least partially) wrong. A NEW OUTLOOK The first thing you will notice when you enter the game is the graphics, which are easily the best I have seen on the GBA. Unlike THPS for the Gameboy Color, this version is played out in full 3D. Well, it is really pseudo-3D, since the action is viewed from a fixed isometric perspective. Even this, however, is impressive, with detailed objects scattered throughout the levels and the skaters themselves being even better, being real polygonal models with a full range of smooth animations on offer, with everything from simple flips to mega-combos being well represented. I nice touch is the way the camera zooms in whenever you do a particularly funky trick. At first, the new view is highly disorientating, particularly to those who played the PC / console versions and are
used to the behind skater cam. Because the view doesn't rotate, your skater can be moving away, toward or around the camera, making it difficult at first to move in the correct direction. This affect is worsened by the difficultly involved in judging distances between objects, particularly air-borne or aboveground ones. There is no real sense of depth, and although shadows can help you work out where things are, it is not as easy as it should be. When you start, you will be hard pushed to land any vert trick, particularly in a pipe, and getting up to the higher areas of a level is near impossible. But, like anything, you will get used to it. I have been playing for a couple of weeks now, and I am now fairly comfortable with it. I do feel, however, that no matter how much you play, it will never feel quite like the true 3D view. For one, you simply cannot see enough of the level at once, making it more difficult to plan tricks and combos in advance. It is also still difficult to keep going a perfectly straight line, essential for any short quarter-pipe. CONTROL FREAKY The controls are essentially the same as other versions. You have a button to ollie (jump) one to do flips, one to do grabs and one to grind. In order to pull off tricks, you need to ollie, and then hold down one of the trick buttons whilst spinning with the D-pad. Because of the lack of buttons on the GBA, two of these actions have been assigned to the shoulder buttons. This means that you often have to hold down a shoulder button whilst doing complicated button pushes on the D-pad. This feels a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head. Again, however, you will get used to it. A slightly more worrying control aspect is trying to balance in grinds / manuals. Although a bar appears on-screen showing your balance, it is at best tiny. If you play in darker conditions, it would be near invisible. Another annoyance I found was the sensitivity of the D-Pad, mak
ing it very difficult to make fine adjustments to your direction. This may just be me, however, since I am used to playing with a stick, which provides more control. ALL THE TONYS, MAKIN' MONEY The core game mode is career, in which you take control of one of the many skaters on offer and complete certain objectives on each level to open up new levels. You also earn money for this, which can then be spent improving your stats or buying new tricks. There are also two competitions, where you compete directly against other skaters to rack up the highest score. Basically, it is the same as we have seen in other versions. And all the skaters are the same as in other versions. The differences between them are their initial stats (although eventually you will max out their stats anyway, so that's not really important) and their tricks. This is the first of my major gripes. You cannot edit your skater's tricks. You can buy new specials, but you cannot touch anything else. I suppose this was done because of the limited space the cartridge has for saving game data. This has two repercussions. First, you cannot customize your skater as much as you should, and second you cannot even see what tricks you can do, meaning that you have to experiment to find them out. As if you needed telling, the levels have been ported from other versions as well. Not all, however, are here. This is understandable, given the size of the levels that are present. We have Hanger, School II, Marseille, Warehouse, New York and Plywood Paradise. These levels have received some tweaks to make them work on the handheld, but most of the objectives are the same. Surprisingly, most of the secret areas are included, although some are in slightly different places. On the whole though, you will immediately feel like you know your way around. I feel that if one area of the game deserved a revamp, it would be the levels. It's not that they are bad - far
from it. It's just that they don't work terribly well when played through the isometric view. Take School II. It has a lot of height to it, with various buildings that you need to jump to and between, not to mention big drops between different parts of the level. As I have already stated, the isometric view makes this tough. SUNDRIES In addition to career mode, there is also single session, where you skate a level for 2 minutes to try to get a high score, and free skate, where there is no time limit and you can practise your tricks. Missing is the create a skater feature (which I'm not bothered about, as I feel it is a bit gimmicky) and, obviously, the level editor. Whilst both of these omissions are excusable, the one that isn't is multiplayer. Playing against another player in THPS 2 is simply bliss, because not only do you have the usual satisfaction of pulling off a great move, you also have the satisfaction of beating your mate (and who would pass up an opportunity to laugh in their face?) why this isn't included is a mystery to me, since I wouldn't have thought it would put much extra strain on the system. My overall impression of this game is a good one. There is no doubt that it has successfully brought the Tony Hawk experience to the handheld. Despite the odd irritation, the core gameplay is just as it should be. I feel that I am a THPS veteran, and I still found this version fun, even though I have played other versions a lot, so you shouldn't let past experience put you off. And if you have never played any THPS before, well? just kiss your social life goodbye.
Impressions struck gold with the first game in their 'City Builder' series, Caesar III, an intricate and detailed game in which you constructed and managed a city from scratch in ancient Rome. Although hugely playable, it mainly appealed to hard-core strategy enthusiasts due to the amount of micro-management and dull manipulation of figures. The sequel, Pharaoh, streamlined the game somewhat and removed many of the irritations of the first, although it received something of a lukewarm reception, being hailed as 'Caesar in Egypt', since the gameplay was essentially the same as the first game. Now, we have a third, Zeus - Master of Olympus. Unsurprisingly, this one is set in ancient Greece. Surprisingly, it has changed considerably from its predecessor. DECIET AND DECEPTION If you have never played either Caesar or Pharaoh, when you first see Zeus you could be fooled into thinking that it is a completely different game from what it actually is. Browsing the blurb on the box, you can see plenty of descriptions of gods, monsters and heroes, but very little information about building cities - which is, after all, the heart of the game. the opening FMV (which incidentally is excellent) depicts a scene from Greek mythology in which Zeus creates mount Olympus. In fact, the first time you realise what the game is is when you are dumped into an isometric cityscape. This facade does show you, however, that the focus of the game has shifted. Impressions obviously realised that they could reach a larger audience by removing many of the more tedious gameplay elements, which they have done. The basis of the game is still the same - attracting people to your cities and then building industries to provide them with more resources, which in turn makes them upgrade their homes which in turn improves their capacity, increasing the number of people coming to your city. Creating a complex city infrastructure, made of various industries linking
together sounds like a difficult task, requiring fine balancing and management. Well, it isn't as bad as it was in previous games, although it is still necessary to consult a few statistics. On the whole, though, you just need to put up the right buildings, and things will sort themselves out. This may sound simplistic, and it is. But, various other areas of the gameplay have been extended considerably, which more than compensates for this. MY GOD! The game is now much more story-focused. There are various campaigns in which you build and develop a single city over a series of separate missions and follow a plot line. Each mission begins with a briefing, describing the current situation around Greece, and giving you your objectives. The stories involve not only other cities and leaders, but also the gods, monsters and heroes. Gods were in previous Impressions games before, of course, but how they behave in Zeus is quite different. Worshipping a specific god involves building a sanctuary, a huge project requiring a lot of time and resources. Once complete, that god actually appears on your streets, providing various services such as protection from invasions or increased food production. Similarly, monsters (Cyclops, Medusa etc) can appear in your city, wreaking havoc. The only way to rid yourself of these is to attract a hero to your city (Jason, Hercules etc). These heroes will only appear if your city is up to certain standards (having a certain number of soldiers, wine stock and so on). This interaction with the mythological world is very interesting, and very accurate, with all the correct gods present and correct. It provides a nice change from simple dull city building. Other areas of the game have also been enhanced, particularly interaction with the rest of the world. In addition to standard trading, you can also give gifts, attempt raids or even try to capture a city (more on this later). Captured cities pay regular tribute in
the form of goods. You can also construct colonies in other parts of Greece to try and spread your influence. This is not as exciting as it sounds, since you can only build colonies when the story dictates. Diplomacy is still sadly lacking, although by fulfilling favours for other leaders you can improve your reputation. CHARGE! Combat has always been the low point of previous games, and it is still not fantastic. Getting soldiers is much easier, however. You can call your citizens to arms at any time to defend your city. Moving them around is simple enough, but telling them to attack is tough. You just have to tell them to move near the enemy and hope they attack. Attackers also seem to be able to ravage your city with alarming ease, and once they start it is tough to stop them, as they tend to run away. Luckily, there is an auto-defend option, so you don't need to muck about in this kind of thing. If you want to invade another city, you need real soldiers. These are obtained by attracting the very highest class of citizens to your city and providing them with various luxuries. Actually initiating the invasion is much better than defending against one. You simply send the soldiers you want, and the victor is calculated on probabilities. If you ask me, all the combat should be done this way, or else the whole combat system re-designed, as it is too fiddly as it is. THIS WAS A NICKELODEON PRODUCTION As I have mentioned, the gameplay has been simplified in order to make the game more mainstream. For the same reason (I am guessing) the graphics have been changed from the dull and functional to the colourful and cartoonish. All of the gods, monsters and heroes and very much caricatured, looking like characters from comics or cartoons. In fact, the graphics verge on the (gulp) cute! This put me off at first, but you soon realise that all this is merely superficial. And in all honesty, the graphics are an improvement on th
ose in pharaoh. Sound and music match the graphics. All the pre-mission briefings are narrated in a rather over-the-top dramatic tone. When you click a citizen to find out what they think of the city, they too adopt a similar tone. Sound effects are of the loud and punchy variety, with dramatic music accompanying. I turn this off! PHARAOH 1.5 Although Zeus has taken steps to change and provide more variety for all gamers, the core gameplay is basically the same as the previous two games. If you didn't like those two, you probably won't like this one. Although, if it was the complexity that put you off, Zeus may be worth a try. For hard-core strategy players, there are enough gameplay tweaks in place to make this a worthy purchase. If for some reason you have never played an Impressions City Builder, you should certainly give this one a try. I personally enjoyed playing Zeus, even though I played pharaoh to death. Then again, I know other people who feel the opposite. It might not be worth paying £35 for, but I have seen it in some places for £20. If you see it at this price, you should certainly snap it up.
More than any other band I know, The Offspring have a very definite style that they religiously stick to song after song, album after album. I can always tell if a song I hear is by The Offspring due to that same basic beat that runs through all their music. I wouldn't say that this is necessarily a bad thing, though, because they have developed this style over the years into such a great sounding state. Although Conspiracy of One is mostly composed of such tracks, it does show that the group are starting to diversify. Take 'Denial, Revisited' for instance, a (relatively) slow moving rock ballad that has more meaningful lyrics than anything else on the album, or indeed in their entire discography. It seems quite out of place amongst Dexter Holland's screaming on every other track. It is by no means a bad piece, but it may not be what you are expecting. 'Vultures' also takes the band away from it's usual hyper-active style, giving us a plodding but none-the-less exciting piece. The highlight of the album is 'Original Prankster', a song that epitomises what The Offspring are about; 'busting out' of the system. It is also one of their best sounding songs ever. 'Want You Bad' is also worthy of note, again providing a great sounding no-nonsense piece that's heavy on music and light on lyrics. The rest of the album is up to a good standard, mostly sticking to their usual style. Although The Offspring call themselves a punk band, they are moving ever closer to traditional rock, and this album is moving them further in this direction. This album has been far better thought out than any of their previous efforts, giving us much more variety than we have previously seen. It also shows just what the band is capable of if they apply themselves to different styles of music. In doing this, they have shown a certain maturity, and one can only hope that their future music can continue in this way.
It is a sad state of affairs we find ourselves in today. With Microsoft's dominance in almost every facet of computing, us poor end users are left with no choice but to accept their products. By so forcefully integrating their browser with Windows, Internet Explorer has become the standard, squashing many other browsers in its path (Netscape will probably never return to its former glory). Web designers are also always designing their sites for IE, often not caring what they look like in other browsers. With these problems, it is easy to see how difficult it is to find a viable alternative. Until now. I like my browsers of the 'no frills' variety (which is why I dislike Netscape 6). Opera is just a web browser. Well, it does have very basic e-mail and newsgroups, but once turned off, it really is just a web browser. This means that the download is small, and the browser itself is very quick to load and function. But the real advantage is the speed it loads web pages. Although I haven't done any formal tests, Opera just seems far more responsive in this area, particularly when loading old pages, which happens nigh on instantly, whereas IE still takes a few seconds. I have yet to touch on the main problem with alternative web browsers that I mentioned earlier: compatibility. Well, Opera performs admirably in this department. Many pages look identical to the way they look in IE, with many more having just the odd graphical error. I have yet to find a page that is unusable through Opera. The reason for its compatibility lies in its ability to 'identify' as other browsers. This means that it can fool web sites into thinking that you are actually running IE or Netscape. This means that if a site doesn't look right when masquerading as one browser, you can try another. Another area of high praise is the interface. There are several useful items that appear on the toolbars that don't in any other browser. There is a
search box, which can be made to search using any number of popular search engines, which is quicker than actually going to the search engine's site. Multiple windows are docked in Opera's own task bar look-alike at the bottom of the screen, which is far more manageable than IE's method. A particularly handy feature for benchmarking browser performance is the extended progress information that appears when loading a page. You are told the standard stuff, like the amount of data transferred so far and percentage done, but you are also told the speed your connection is working at, the number of images loaded / still to load and a timer, showing you how long the page took to complete. This info can also be handy for checking the performance of individual web pages, and indeed your own, so you know if your server needs an upgrade. Unfortunately, there are one or two niggles I have with this browser. First, although it seems to support most web standards (Java, CSS, Flash etc) it cannot render certain java-based drop-down menus. Most sites have alternative fixed menus, however, so this isn't much of a problem. It also lacks a few features you may have become accustomed to in IE, such as history lists for form elements. But nothing really important has been omitted. As I see it, there are two groups of people who should give this browser a try. Those who want a fast, frill-free browser, and those who hate Microsoft. As I fall into both of these categories, this browser is ideal for me. Give it a go. We can't let IE take over the 'net!
There is a major problem with this service, and that is the way it interferes with internet connections. When I had the service, I was disconnected from my ISP after 8 minutes, every time. Several of my friends had this problem as well. Then, after I cancelled the service, the problem vanished, so I am sure that it is the cause. Aside from this major flaw, it just takes too long to use the service (having to listen to 'if you want xxx, press 1, etc every time). With most phones coming with built in answer machines anyway these days, I cannot see why anyone would want to use this service.
Nevermind did more than just launch Nirvana's personal success. It also brought grunge to the forefront of the music business, and helped it gain mass acceptance. Kurt Cobain makes his mark in the form of haunting and meaningful lyrics, and shows the range he is capable of achieving, with everything from soft whispers in 'Something in the Way' to hyperactive screams in 'Territorial Pissings'. The tunes too cover a similar range; although all retain a strong and catchy back beat that will have you humming them all day. The highlight of the album is undoubtedly 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', the opening notes of which will become permanently burned into your brain, as will the droning 'hello, hello, hello...'. 'Breed' is a very fast moving track that is one of my personal favourites. As I have already mentioned, 'Something in the Way' is a slower piece with a very harmonious melody making for an excellent end to the album. The thing that struck me most about this album, however, was the level of quality that was maintained throughout. Whilst many albums produced today are merely a collection of mediocre songs supporting 1 or 2 good ones, everything here deserves its place. It is one of the few CDs that I can listen to from start to finish without skipping anything. And I think that is about the greatest recommendation I can give.
BarrysWorld first started as a collection of gaming servers run for public use. It has grown from that base to become the best online gaming site in the UK bar none. The news service is outstanding, updated once or twice each day, covering games, hardware and software for all platforms, as well as giving links to new articles on other gaming / computing sites. You can be sure that you will be well informed on all the latest developments by reading their news. Their servers cover all popular games such as Half-Life and Quake 3, as well as mods for those games. The servers are fast (for me anyway) and are kept up to date. They also have bookable servers for clan matches that I have used many times, and they have not failed yet. They do write some reviews and previews for games, although they are not top quality or frequent. It is unfair to criticise them for this, however, since providing their own content is not what their main aim is. It's my homepage, and it should be for any serious online gamer.
Hotmail has earned itself I bit of an iffy reputation. People think of it as a newbie service with few features and a clunky interface, dominated by links to MSN and adverts. It has evolved considerably from this state, however, incorporating many new features over the years. Now, it has had a total redesign which makes it far more usable. All the crap has been removed, bar one list of links on the right hand side of the page, leaving the rest of your screen for e-mail. You get easy access to the most important screens in a single click (compose, inbox, addresses etc). Mailboxes are well designed, listing the standard info such as sender, subject and so on, with no useless information. Message composition has a similarly clear interface, with only the standard address, subject, cc and other basic fields. This simplicity may annoy some, but I think it makes the whole system far easier and quicker to use. The redesign has also made it look much nicer, with an aqua theme running throughout. It is attractive without getting in the way. It does have some nice extras too, such as automatically scanning attachments for viruses (although I cannot vouch for how effective this is). It has basic junk mail filtering which is adequate for most. My favourite feature, however, is the ability to collect mail from other POP3 accounts. This means that managing multiple e-mail accounts is made easier. The only problem with this is that you can only have up to 4 POP3 accounts, which might not be enough. All in all, this still does not have that many advanced features, but it has most certainly improved, and it will continue to do so. If you need a web mail account, this is the one to go for.
Although Agent does have e-mail facilities, they are fairly basic. No, the real reason to use this app is for the news reading capabilities. It is truly the most powerful news client available. When you first load it up, you would be forgiven if you thought that you had just stepped into Windows 3.1. The interface does look rather ancient. Don't let that fool you, though, because it is highly customisable. You can do the usual things such as select which columns to view in the various windows, but you can also change the arrangement of windows, which ones are visible, screen fonts and colours and customize the toolbar and menus. You are sure to get it to look how you want it. But what are these high power news-reading functions that I mentioned earlier? Well, thread watching, which always downloads new messages in particular threads, customisable purging, which allows you to set filters on which messages can automatically be deleted and when, message joining which allows you to join parts of threads together, scheduled downloading, which allows you to set exactly when messages are downloaded and which ones and selective message body downloading, which only downloads message bodies if they meet your (customisable) requirements. Whew, that was a long sentence! And that isn't even a complete list of features! One feature does deserve special attention, though, and that is the message filtering. You can set up filters that remove messages based on numerous factors including, but not limited to: subject, size, date posted, author, group posted to and whether it was cross-posted. The filters are very powerful, and allow you to look not just for literal strings, but also use various variables. For instance, you could set up a filter that removes messages that contain '$' or 'cash' in the body and are cross-posted to groups 'x', 'y' and 'z'. These filters can be used to give you a customized news fee
d that only contains messages that you are interested in. Clever stuff. The filters are written in a custom scripting language, although it isn't very difficult to learn, and there are plenty of ready-made filters too. I mentioned earlier that this app looks like a relic from the past, and that is because it is based on a 16-bit app. This means that it is still not perfectly compatible with 32-bit OSs. By this, I mean that it doesn't take advantage of many Win32 features, and it is prone to crashing. The thing that is going to put most novice users off though is the sheer complexity of it. All the features I have mentioned are not immediately accessible or easy to use, and the whole app does have a certain chunkiness about it. This is not helped by the cryptic options screens, of which there are many. The Agent help newsgroup is often packed with messages asking what option x does. If you are prepared to put the effort in though, this is far and away the greatest news-reader available. If you are unhappy with the news features of Outlook or Netscape, you should certainly consider this.
Cash Fiesta has been around for a while, and initially they were looking to be one of the better PTS programmes available, with a reasonably good pay rate. That rate has now declined as have all others, although it is tough to work out exactly what it is because of the way earnings are calculated, but I would say that it is only $0.01-$0.02/hour. The only way to earn significant amounts is, as always, by getting referrals, and the way to do that, as always, is by being a webmaster and putting a banner on your site. So, that rules most people out. On the upside, the bar is one of the better ones, and whilst not 100% stable, it is better than average. The really good thing about it, though, is that it shows how many points you have accumulated on the bar itself. This introduces another problem, though. The points tick up at a regular rate, but only on your computer. It is only when you close the bar that the points are transferred to the server. This means that if the bar crashes (as it does sometimes) you lose all the points you have collected since you started. To avoid this, it is a good idea to close and reopen the bar every few minutes. Not an ideal solution, but it's the only one I can think of. The other main way of making money is signing up for various deals. These, however, all tend to be for things like credit cards and airline tickets (i.e. serious commitments) which most people wouldn't be prepared to do. Aside from that, most are only available in the US anyway. It's nice to see that the site is kept up to date, as it lets you know that they are still there working to improve the service. With far too many of these PTS programmes, you often feel like the company doesn't exist at all! In conclusion, this is a fairly average PTS scheme. There are better out there, so I wouldn't bother with this one, unless you don't mind running 4 or 5 ad bars at once (I know people who do it!) Take a look at Sped
ia.net, which is my pick of the bunch.
Spedia is one of these programmes that display an ad bar on your screen in exchange for cash. Spedia has by far the best hourly pay rate of $0.30, compared with rates like $0.02 offered by other companies. The bar is stable, but it only works when browsing web pages in IE or Netscape, not if you are reading e-mail, word processing or doing other things. This is annoying. It also requires constant activity to keep it earning. There are also other ways to make money, like signing up for programmes and playing games. It is a very cohesive package, professionally done, and I have earned more on it than any other PTS programme. If you only use one ad bar, make it this one.
One of the first (probably the first) god game was Sim City. At the time, it was an utterly new concept, and even now there are few games like it. The idea of building and running your own city captured everyone's imagination, and spawned countless 'Sim' spin-offs, most notably the recent 'The Sims'. Now however, we see the original title updated, but is it worth it? The heart of the game remains the same as ever it was. You, as mayor, must zone areas for use as residential, commercial and industrial use. Provide these zones with road access and power, and they will begin to develop into houses, factories, shops and all manner of other buildings. This is just the start though. Water and rubbish disposal systems need to be set up before long. The Sims want pleasure, meaning parks, marinas, zoos etc. Crime will soon be a problem, so better get those police stations up and running. Traffic problems? Call on the various forms of mass transit. There are many more things to tend to, but I couldn't possibly list them all here. The point is that if you want to run a successful city, you need to balance all of these factors carefulThis kind of thing could be enjoyable or deadly boring, depending on who you are. But as management games go, I would say that this is one of the more interesting. Fiddling numbers and looking at charts is kept to a minimum, but even so, a certain amount of patience is required. Sim City 2000 - the first sequel - was certainly a major step forward, offering many more aspects of the city to take care of, and generally giving a greater feeling of depth. 3K has added little to the mix, and has in fact simplified many areas of the game. These simplifications have all been for the best, however, such as water pipes which no longer have to be connected to every building, and no longer needing to build power lines between every zone. What this sequel has added is greater subtlety below the surface of the city. Alt
hough the cartoon graphics may fool you, there are some quite complex city dynamics behind the scenes. For instance, when you first start your city, you have a lot of fairly uneducated people coming in, and so the main zones in demand are residential and industrial. Soon, the flood of people subsides, and so residential demand decreases. As people become more educated, commercial zones are demanded more. The people themselves are also surprisingly well modelled. They like to be in a nice neighbourhood, with low crime and pollution, with good transport routes to other parts of the city, particularly their work place, but they don't want to live too close to it. Some like to live in the heart of the city and some want to live on the outskirts. There are many fine points such as these that can only be discovered by playing the game. While the city building side of the game remains largely unchanged, the management side is greatly improved. You now have a board of advisors who alert you to problems and give advice on how to deal with them. There are an extensive selection of map overlays giving details on things such as traffic, crime and flammability. Although I have said that there are few figures and charts that you have to look at, they are there if you wish, with details such as life expectancy and age ranges of the population, and breakdowns of how rubbish is disposed of. These things may seem rather pointless, however they can be used effectively to - for instance - see the effects of the neighbourhood watch ordinance you have just enacted, or to see just how that new incinerator is helping with your rubbish problems. All the information available to you has some potential purpose, unlike 2K, which was full of useless data. Another part of the game that has been drastically improved is interaction with the outside world. You can now make deals with neighbouring cities to buy and sell various commodities that your city has extra supplies of o
r is lacking in. This is still on the simplistic side (compared to the rest of the game), since you are never really lacking in anything yourself (unless the map is designed that way) but it is potentially an important source of income. Unfortunately, it is slightly flawed. If - for example - you agreed to sell water to a neighbour, you would initially only be selling a small quantity for a small price. Over time, the amount sold would increase, as would your revenues. This itself is good, since it encourages you to stick with a deal for a decent length of time before you start to reap the benefits. However, you have no say in the deal itself, only whether to accept it or not. This means that eventually you are being asked to provide ludicrous amounts of water, meaning that you must build hundreds of water pumps. This happened to me once, and I covered half the map with the things. The only other option is to cancel the deal, losing all your revenue. Highly annoying. You also get offers from companies to place buildings in your city, paying you a monthly fee for the privilege. The problems that these buildings bring are very real. For instance, building a mega-mall crushes many of your city's small businesses. This means that you need to think hard about what to place in your city, and decide whether it is worth the income. 3K retains the isometric view of 2K, opting not to go fully 3D, having learned their lesson with the disastrous 'Streets of Sim City'. The game is all the better for this decision, allowing you to clearly view and manage your city, with no irritating camera to worry about. Don't think that the game looks boring though, because the wide variety of buildings and landscapes look highly impressive, especially the high-rise towers. There is a slightly cartoony feel to the graphics, which makes it seem a fairly simple game on the surface, although clearly it isn't. Some of the more useful graphical touches are the visible
feedback indicators, such as seeing rubbish pile up in the streets or vandalism. There are also several graphical filters that allow you to view only certain parts of the city, which makes maintenance simpler. Although sounds are not particularly important in a game like this, there is a nice musical score of light jazz that keeps you in a good mood. You don't actually hear any sounds from the city, which is probably a good thing; otherwise all you would be hearing would be car horns and people screaming abuse at each other. I could walk down the street I live on for that! So far this review has been mostly praise. However, there is one big problem, and that is objectives. Or lack of them. You simply build a city. There are no missions or scenarios. You just do what you want. Fun in a way, because you can build anything from a small, pleasant village to a bustling metropolis. But the novelty of this soon wears off, and you realise that there isn't much variety. And then there is the old problem: Once you have built a city, what's left to do? Sim City has often been billed more as a toy rather than a game, and this is very true. In fact, this idea has been extended in this version, with the edition of 'growing cities', complete cities that have been zoned, but not built on. You turn them on, and watch them grow. This plays to the simulation aspect of the game. Something that fans have been crying out for for some time now is a multiplayer mode, but Maxis are sticking stubbornly to their roots. A multiplayer mode would have extended the game's life considerably. As to what form it would take, I am uncertain. Perhaps a race to get to a particular goal (such as a particular population) or maybe each player being a candidate for mayor, having to fight a campaign against the others. There isn't much of an online community for this game, mainly due to the lack of multiplayer. The official site isn't bad though, off
ering some extra tips and info, as well as a few maps to download. Also available is the building architect tool, which as the name suggests, allows you to design your own buildings. Unlike most game editors, this one is presented at the same standard as the game itself. Although not massively powerful, you can have some fun with it, and it is very easy to use. I have said that this game offers a lot of depth. However, this depth can be bypassed. You can ignore all the finer points of the game, throwing down zones with little forethought and still build a fairly successful city. The problem is, many people play it like this, and then dismiss it for being too simple. The depth is there, but you must put some effort into finding it. The other thing most people say is that it is no different to 2K. However, it is a far more realistic simulation. In 3K, you can build cities that behave as would a real one. In 2K you can't. And that, my friends, is the big difference.