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dannylee

dannylee
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Member since: 21.10.2011

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    • More +
      29.08.2012 19:30
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      A great card which has an uphill battle to reclaim Nvidia's reputation share

      Many years ago, ATI's main rival Nvidia slipped off their pedestal as graphics card manufacturer of first choice, as ATI's cards represented better value for money when put side by side. Then the pendulum swung back into Nvidia's favour a few years ago and it seems that the collective favour still lies with them, if not so dramatically. Coming from an Nvidia graphics card back to an ATI card, I do feel that I would have benefited from remaining under their umbrella, thought my sentiment is derived not from performance, but stability and usability.

      Currently I have the MSI 7850 Twin Frozr, based on the ATI 7850, as featured here. The performance characteristics of a graphics cards closely correlate with cost, so you need only define your budget to predict the outcome of your equipment. I am not obsessed with underlying facts and figures, nor do I purchase games the moment they are released with an aim to playing them at their full prettiness, so I am unfortunately not going to comment on that. I expect upper-middle performance for a card costing nearly £200, and that is what I have witnessed from the 7850.

      The physical construction of the card is certainly appealing to the eye. It's no secret that great care is taken into the visual appeal of components to press every little button in a male-dominated consumer market - and it works. It features a complex heatsink construction on the main face of the board, complimented with twin fans, hence it's namesake 'Twin Frozr'. Low volume operation is pushed as a selling point for this card and it does not fail to deliver. Using this card, it would be hard to judge if my computer was even turned on were it not for the power LED. It does not assert an audible presence like my old Nvidia card, which is something to consider if, like me, you value a machine that tries to blend in.

      Most recently I have enjoyed playing Transformers : War for Cybertron at maximum detail, which is a 2010 release. I was impressed and pleased at the smooth delivery of frantic and busy visuals constructed without a flaw or falter. Borderlands, a 2009 shooter which scrums many stylised effects into the frame, performs without a hiccup. Based on the level at which I can play these sophisticated and gratuitous games, I can be confident that the games that myself and friends are anticipating in the coming couple of years will not leave the 7850 wanting, even if I may have to compromise on some releases somewhere far over the horizon.

      So why do I still feel like I may have found the Nvidia equivalent preferable? The main reason, though small, is the controller software, the ATI Catalyst Control Centre. Personally, compared to Nvidia's display panel, I find it to be less intuitive, needlessly fragmented and not as tidy. Nvidia's control panel, in my eyes, lays everything out without compartmentalising everything, whereas ATI's Catalyst Control Centre goes out of it's way to pigeon hole many things meaning I have to flick between tabs to keep on top of my settings. This 'problem', if I can call it that, applies to all cards based on the ATI video cards, and is something that third-party manufacturers such as MSI, who are responsible for the 7850 Twin Frozr displayed here, cannot do anything about. On older games I like to override the settings within games and increase smoothing and image enhancers such as the edge-reducing anti-aliasing and other common processes, and I find it more finnicky in the CCC than the Nvidia display panel. Just a small gripe, but it doesn't take a lot to influence preference in this field. I may simply still have an elevated view of Nvidia considering my old card, an Nvidia GTX 260, did so well for so long.

      As an upper-middle card, the 7850 is in the hotspot of value-for-money cards that sit in-between highly priced top performers and lightweight cards. For now, I have no worries that the 7850 will deliver the raw hardware performance for future titles, if in time I can learn to love the universal ATI control software as much, too.

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    • Space Marine (PC) / PC Game / 25 Readings / 24 Ratings
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      24.08.2012 20:14
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      Fans will feel familiar, but newcomers will still understand. A good, solid game which I enjoyed!

      Warhammer is no longer a franchise solely for tabletop nerds or fiction bookworms since their model-based hobby game was computerised and stylised. Usually best known for their Real Time Strategy work, such as the excellent Company of Heroes, Warhammer: Dawn of War, but most importantly the groundbreaking Homeworld Series, Relic is a safe and smart pair of hands. With such a good history and a reputation for high standards, it's no wonder they were trusted to progress the Warhammer games forward still.
      An important fact to note; Space Marine is a third-person, over the shoulder shooter, much like Gears of War or the recent Transformers : War for Cybertron. Some may groan, others may be unjilted, but regardless of what you think of third-person shooters for the PC, you shouldn't overlook it for this alone. Read on...

      Space Marine's storyline is good. A little conservative, and sometimes it's easy to tell what's just around the corner even if you never knew for sure, but that kind of thing's never stopped people enjoying a production before, has it? Regardless, everything is there. A villain, twist, betrayal, emergency, triumph, and a bittersweet sting. It took me not far off 6 hours of gameplay to complete and I enjoyed almost all of it to various degrees, from sustained amusement to sparks of delight. Unsophisticated, Space Marine feels less of a battle opera and more of a planetary barfight, but it must be repeated that simplicity is not always a bad thing. The premise initially wraps around questing for the means to repel a huge invasion force on a human-occupied planet. This means leading your powerful and unwavering Space Marine squad deep into the heaviest fighting, like walking tanks deployed to squash the opposition. Space marines are a rare and elite force, revered and hailed by the weaker, pure human resistance forces. Being this influential character opens the door for a grand mission and even grander combat.
      There are a variety of starkly different races and alliances in the Warhammer universe, constantly grinding eachother into dust for as long as the inhabitants remember, but only about half of them appear in this game. In Space Marine, the Orks feature very prominently as an opposing force, and I'm glad this was the case. For those not in the know, the Orks are founded on the stereotype of tribal, green-skinned, ogrish thugs, though Warhammer's version of them is brilliant and here they are true to the way they are depicted in the Dawn of War games. As far as character endearment goes, the Orks are extremely likeable yet aggressively fierce at the same time. When all other characters wear furrowed brows or grunt scriptural scowls, the Orks are there to remind you that there's a fight to be had. Hordelike yet still full of personality, Orks carry the game forward well.

      - SPOILER CONTENT BELOW -

      Featuring too, are the forces of Chaos. Chaos is the enveloping term used to describe those posessed by or in worship of demonic forces, like a heavily corrupt civilisation of the occult. Though not as interesting and dynamic a foe as the orks, they are starkly more powerful, sinister and intelligent. Fighting numerous but disadvantaged Orks no longer, suddenly you will be on a level with Chaos Space Marines and champions who are just as well armed as you, or better, if you find yourself short of firepower. If before the point of Chaos' entry you were tiring of Ork crowd control, their introduction will shake it up nicely. Most games suffer from chucking all their hard work out of the window by introducing a ridiculous and intolerable enemy halfway through (like Halo's Flood), but this is mitigated nicely by the persistent appearance of the Orks throughout, creating nice 3-way set pieces and conflicts for you to witness, right before you wade in and add to the damage.

      - END OF SPOILER CONTENT -

      So the scene is set and the synopsis is laid out, but everyone who plays games knows that if the gameplay is weak and without power, the whole house of cards blows over. In the case of Space Marine, it is it's core gameplay that is it's biggest asset.

      As a Space Marine you carry some serious mass of flesh and armor, so it would be an incredible shame if you were unable to utilise that in close combat. Anyone who played the Dawn of War games would appreciate how the attention to hand-to-hand combat was equal to if not greater than the ranged fighting. This shared focus on melee fighting is certainly carried through to this game, for any shooter that also offers great hand-to-hand combat action will stand above the rest. You can choose from a non-cluttered selection of different styled weapons. The loud and nimble chainsword (Chainsaw mixed with sword, if you needed clarification) is a joy to use with it's shouting slices but safely non-committal swipes. The power-axe is a heavier weapon for firmer effect with its electrified double-head, and the Thunder Hammer is a two-handed thor-like instrument for those who love to truly throw their weight about. All 3 are different enough in style and execution that whenever the opportunity arises, it is worth swapping and changing to suit your preference. There'll be a lot of time spent giving blunt or blade trauma to your target so it's a good thing you don't have to switch weapons through some sub-menu or key-combination - instead, it's only a click away before you have wielded your chosen weapon and the fun begins. In Space Marine, there is not much in terms of 'this one is better than that one in every way', but merely a matter of preference. Melee combat itself lends itself to being dealt in punishing combos and committed attacks on either a single or multiple target, and there are many places that swinging a blade will be far better than pulling a trigger. Either way, it's satisfying to see and hear the high-quality animation and momentum in full swing.

      Space Marines are a formidable fictional character with vastly improved abilities over your average man, but they're not invincible. Health Packs are not thrown at you, and the primary method of recouperating is to perform what is known as a finishing move. When you have battered your opponents down to a couple of hanger-ons, you are safe to carry out a brutal execution of your enemy by stunning them first with a swift blow. Whilst the finishing move only boils down to pressing your assigned button, it's still a satisfying and violent way to end an encounter and demolish the last of the group. You are free to do this at any time, but you are at risk of being blindsided by any other enemies trying to avenge your victim immediately. To avoid any catch 22 situations whereby the only way to regain health is to attack, but you don't have enough health to do so, a persistent shield system is also in effect, much like Halo's original system whereby recharging is done by taking cover.

      The ranged weaponry is tangibly heavy-duty and sounds great. The space marine's backbone weapon, the bolter, makes you feel like you're laying some serious steel into your prey. The Melta gun, a short range slow-firing vaporising weapon, empowers you to turn close-packed enemies into embers in a satisfying hurricane of white hot energy. The latecoming Storm bolter posesses a brilliant rate of fire and a punching metallic sound for those who want a frantic fix of firepower. There are a good selection of weapons, more than I mention here, all with their own strengths and weaknesses, which help to defer favoritism of any single one.

      In addition to the well-picked sound effects of the action and movement, the voice acting is to be noted of it's quality, too. That is, unless you are distracted by the slight cheesiness or sterility of the main characters at times. As warriors born and bred for the purpose of being space marines, I suppose they are going to take their work very seriously. The Orks, however, are animated, loud and full of life. There is something to be said of an enemy that has a lot of energy, shouting and roaring like some kind of parallel to our image of Viking berzerkers. The primary villains, including the likable and riotous Ork war leader, are voiced well even if they fit straight into the archetype of furious, steroidal beast and abominable, dark overlord.

      Multiplayer is an unknown arena for me, as my hardware was unfortunately not adequately up for the task. During the single player campaign, performance was very choppy at points and very good at others, but then I am utilising a 3 to 4 year old video card on an XP dual-core computer. Current systems built using any modern video cards should perform very well and let Space Marine look as good as it was meant to be. If anything, it's a testament to how much I was willing to play through it, if I was not being hypnotised by what would be amazing visuals and effects had I played on a recent system. The hallmark of a good game is one which you play despite an actual less-than-par experience, because you love it's gameplay. I have heard good things about the Multiplayer experience, but it's not something I can personally comment on. It is not the reason I bought and enjoyed it.

      Over the course of playing Space Marine it felt like it was a conservative project mixed with some experiment. I'm unaware of any attempts to make a shooter set in the world of Warhammer, certainly none recently, so trying anything unusual would have been bad timing. If Space Marine was created to test the waters, I'd imagine the reception it received would deem it a success. Not a wild success, but nonetheless a solid effort which I personally enjoyed greatly. Space Marine is worth some of your pennies, particularly if you are already exposed to the Warhammer universe, but still very much open to those who haven't. Even visually, a comparison can definitely be drawn between Space Marines and Gears of war, and even the recent Transformers : War for Cybertron, particular as they all share the basic Unreal 3 engine. Space Marine's flavour is certainly more close-up and thunderous, however, and in my opinion the character set and fiction surrounding it lends well to an old-fashioned heroic story with lots of action throughout.

      Despite appearing to be a little bit childish to the outside world with it's massive armor-clad Space Marines, or big green Orks and chunky weapons, Warhammer may surprise you with it's violence if you were expecting something toned down. Whilst not grim or dark, it's certainly not shy with the red stuff.

      - SPOILER CONTENT BELOW -

      Furthermore, even though I was already satisfied with the game upon completion, it's bitter ending sealed the deal. It may just be me, but I love games that don't suffer from Filmitus, where everything has to be alright at the end, just to please some kind of audience of which I still can't identify.

      - END OF SPOILER CONTENT -

      The mature attitude to a fantasy-based game adds more reason to investigate this raucous shooter. Well worth your time and money, particularly as there is a Space Marines 2 on the horizon, which may very well be braver and more experimental with it's deployment.
      A great game doing justice to Warhammer's rich fiction. I have never, and will never touch the real tabletop games, models, books or minifilms, but I thoroughly enjoyed this.

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    • HP ProBook 4520s / Laptop / 23 Readings / 20 Ratings
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      10.08.2012 16:49
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      All-rounder with good build and construction for utilitarian use

      I use my 15" ProBook 4520s as a company laptop in my dayjob as an IT technician. It goes with me everywhere as a vital tool when diagnosing and checking customer networks and systems. As such, it's consistently transported in the back of my van, switched on, switched off, perched precariously on dusty engineering worktops and office floors as an improvised workstation. It is there to be an on-access portable PC with no quirks, qualms or time-consuming foibles for me to have to contend with. So far it's done very well, and here's how...

      Build and layout -

      As a machine that must accompany me virtually everywhere, the build standard and materials used for the ProBook are quite appropriate. Over half of exposed faces are clad in lightweight brushed metal, which includes almost the entire lid, the palm rest of the keyboard aswell as the speaker and power button cover. The underside consists of a single large formed plastic shell, which has no sub-panels or access hatches compromising it's rigidity or appearance.

      The widescreen display is generous enough, though with roughly 7" of height it can *sometimes* feel a little restricted in terms of vertical display space. The sharpness, color vibrancy and clarity of the screen, too, is somewhat lacking compared to alternative manufacturer models. Crucially, though, the screen uses a matte finish which is highly practical. Many other manufacturers choose glossy screens which look highly attractive in the showroom but are obstructive in the real world as the contents of your screen are hidden behind a bright reflection. A matte finish screen shows HP are mature enough to provide a screen that can be used everywhere, even if it's sadly not absolutely pin-sharp. The display is tough and resistant to muck and scratches. Sacrifices in performance can be forgiven when the payoff is both suitability and practicality, and even the strongest of sunlight through the office window never makes the ProBook's screen do anything more than blush.

      The keyboard is sleek and well-kitted, though it takes a small amount of familiarisation as the keys have defined square edges, in heavy contrast to most laptop units which seem to be a 'squashed' and rounded version of any desktop laptop. Featuring a number pad on the right hand side, you have pretty much all the keys you'd expect on a desktop PC, without seemingly feeling squashed or small. Not falling foul of the usual laptop pitfall, HP have gone out of their way to keep the important keys their proper sizes. No tiny backspace key, no miniscule shift button, no micro return key. The escape and arrow keys are not very large, but I have never found them to be a problem. In time I've come to love the design of the keys as they offer an incredibly subtle sensory cue when you accidentally press two keys at once. Intentional or not, thanks to these keys, I can happily tell when I've made an error and look to correct it. When resting, the butt of the palm can sit atop the smooth, neat and generously spacious surface along the front of the laptop which, as mentioned earlier, is topped by brushed steel.

      The touchpad, once you overcome the disadvantageous positioning of it, does its job adequately. Peculiarly, the ad is in fact offset from the centerline of the laptop by about 2 inches to the left. This means using the touchpad heavily requires you to be in an 'offset' seating position, otherwise your arms feel unequally strained while using it. The functioning of the touchpad itself is not too shabby, and has good detection and fluid movement. The touchpad can be double-tapped to click and sliding your finger along the edge of the right hand side of the pad serves to scroll pages and values up and down. The physical buttons are not seperate from the touchpad, but are inclusive within it as one big pad. The front edge of the touchpad is raised a tiny amount, allowing the buttons underneath to be pressed with admittedly more force than would be desired. Foregoing all of this, I prefer to carry a plain USB mouse with me in the supplied HP laptop bag. Once initial installation is over, my mouse starts working the very second it's plugged into a USB port. The touchpad does work well and is good if the laptop is being used on the move, but a mouse will remain an invaluable addition to your laptop kit.

      Access to the important components is compromised slightly because of the single-piece underbelly, but not by much. Getting to the innards (Memory, hard drive etc) means undoing a couple of tiny screws and unhinging the speaker/power button cover, then releasing the keyboard. The 2 screws holding the assembly in place are not obviously positioned, so I initially had to consult the manual to be sure of the steps needed to get to the gubbins. It's not exactly difficult or taxing, but it's certainly not as standardised as other laptops where each component can near enough be accessed modularly, peeling away only the panel covering the targeted piece.

      Sockets, plugs and peripheral ports are all positioned well. On the left hand side of the base, there is a notch to put your table security lock, a VGA output display connection, network port, HDMI Port, eSATA/USB port, and an additional plain USB port. The right hand side features the charger input, slimline DVDRW drive and 2 extra USB ports. On the front edge is a card reader for SD and similarly sized cards, aswell as small-jack microphone input and headphone output. Business as usual, except there are no plugs and ports on the back-side, and why should there be? It is irritating to no end when manufacturers place an often-used port on the back of the laptop, where accessibility is usually low or awkward, so HP's recognition of that is of great reward to me as I jump from place to place. The battery resides beneath the screen hinge, as expected, and slides in and out with little fuss.

      Durability so far is great. Many manufacturers produce laptops which after merely a few months look very beat up. The ProBooks we have supplied over the past 2 years, of various models, have stood up well to daily use in the workplace. Some use laptops for rep duties, others prefer them as their permanent workstation. In either case, Probooks have been a fire-and-forget model, as has my own works laptop.

      As for reliability, our company supplied a run of laptops identical to these to our regular customers giving me a unique chance to see how a batch of ProBook 4520s does. Of all units sold and installed (about 10), we had one 4520s with RAM that went faulty after a month or so. Compared to our recent venture with Lenovo, which has been disastrous, we're glad to have chosen ProBooks, particularly considering we've had no reports of any hardware failures since then, and we're talking almost 2 years so far. Having a failure is never great, but of all elements to be affected, RAM is the most common and easiest to resolve.

      Wireless capability is much like the rest of the laptop - does the job with no bells and whistles and most of us prefer it that way. Like many of its kind, the ProBook features a wireless on/off button, though HP likes to provide subtle illumination to this important button, which works well to immediately identify its current status. White means on, orange means off - response is good, too. The adaptor can be flicked off and on with ease using this method, and that counts for a lot when I am testing and creating wireless networks or disengaging and reconnecting to an existing one.

      Performance and software -

      The ProBook offers nothing special at all in terms of response and speed. It does what you ask in an average response time. Whilst initially sounding like I'm putting this model down, I am in fact stressing that there are very little reasons not to choose it for a middle-of-the-road general workhorse, a safe bet. My model uses 64-bit windows 7 with an i3 processor and 2GB of RAM, which is a standard expected specification still to this day. It can be better, but I've rarely found myself wanting with this equipment. During regular browsing and accessing active websites, such as those I use to log onto customer computers from my office (controlling their computer from my laptop to assist with problems), the ProBook doesn't falter. There may be the odd time when I wish my ProBook had come with more memory, but that is usually only when I am in a big rush and I haven't switched my laptop on before needing it and I attempt to do too many things at once. Because of that, I can only say that commenting on the laptops performance when in a hurry is adding unnecessary bias. With performance you normally you get what you pay for, but at least HP doesn't offer ProBooks with ridiculously low and obviously inadequate specs just to scalp sales. In every other way, on every normal occasion, my ProBook has performed superbly with great stability.

      One thing that HP have unfortunately done with their branded systems these days is ship an undesirable portion of what I consider to be unnecessary software preloaded onto their systems. One such item is HPProtectTools, which is a network of security-orientated software which integrates into many aspects of the operating system. Whilst active, HPProtectTools sees fit to involve itself in password storing, drive encryption, and so on. I myself am not personally familiar with the system, as I routinely rinse out any non-essential software to give myself a clean slate from the start, and the vast majority of customers and recipients of the ProBooks have done the same.

      We have pre-emptively ruled HPProtectTools out as needless interfering software, and as such I can't comment on how good or bad it actually is. All I do know is that after spending 15 minutes removing the preloaded extras, the Probook becomes a great base for a wide variety of roles from that point on.

      The ProBook, whilst obviously meant for business and home use, does still have the basic ability and all-round hardware to do many tasks. For example, I took my ProBook away on a jaunt where I knew I'd have stretches of time with not much to do. Chucking a few old games in the bag in a hurry, I would find out if the ProBook could be a basic games machine for a little while. I installed and ran Halo, as well as a few other games from many years back. They were hardly new games or that intensive by modern standards, but I was surprised at how well they ran, though unsurprisingly the toll on battery life was large if not ran off the mains. So it seems my works laptop can be a source of entertainment as well as productivity, if I do not expect the world of it.

      Summary -

      The ProBook 4520s has become my recommendation of choice for those who simply want a portable PC. The reliability from my own laptop, aswell as the run of supply to our maintenance customers, has been very good. The screen could be better, I dislike the touchpad due to it's positioning and the preloaded software is merely another thing to uninstall upon setup, but these points are not significant in exchange for a reliable, no-frills and practical laptop. I've happily used mine for nearly two years for on-the-road and office-based work.

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    • More +
      12.06.2012 21:07
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      For reading on the lavatory and not much more!

      How do you know whether or not you should trust a book that claims to tell you how to do everything? You look for the things you already have specialist knowledge about and you see how the book marks up. Unfortunately, as a true knowledge guide not many of the articles are really applicable or accurate enough to be quoted for truth.

      For example, the short piece on 'Upgrading your computer's RAM' advises you to 'Find out the speed of the RAM' in nanoseconds! Aswell as finding out whether or not the RAM is 'parity or non-parity'. There is no way an article in bullet-point form with THIS kind of curveball advice deserves to be called a how-to. If I was to do this in my profession, I would be making things far, far harder than I needed to if I used 'nanoseconds' as a unit. Nobody I've ever spoken to or tech articles I've ever seen have referred to the used of that measure! This is just one example...

      'Protect your data from attack while online' is an article which refers only to Windows 95/98 and Mac OS. With advice for systems that haven't been seen for about 15 years, need I say more?

      I could list many more examples of vastly simplified or so-vague-it-doesn't-help-anyone articles, but the fact is that to squeeze gems like 'How to race an Indy Car' (if it was this easy to wade into the seat of an indycar, I'd be doing it tomorrow) or 'Live with OCD' into barely more than half a page, it's inevitable that any kind of detail or elaboration will be absent.

      Nothing more than a collection of very basic and unpolished articles fished wholesale from eHow, it's only redeeming factor being that the range of topics covered is vast.

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    • crucial.com / Online Shop / 9 Readings / 7 Ratings
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      08.05.2012 21:33
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      A leading memory vendor, and for good reason

      Crucial is to computer RAM what google has become to search engines. If you have been advised to purchase extra memory (not to be confused with disk space, of course) for your computer then you need only point your browser to crucial.com and you will find an ever-easy resource to hand.

      Currently the home page prominently features Crucial's best weapon - the memory advisor tool. Although it may help, you really don't need any technical know-how at all, you merely need to click 'scan it' and run the program when asked. The scanner then performs behind-the-scenes information reports on your computer and, when finished, proceeds to show you on-screen the purchasing options appropriate for you.

      In the past you may have had to download seperate tools off the web and try to dig up model numbers or speed ratings in order to properly match components, or you might have had to take a look inside your PC and inspect the current hardware to get like-for-like addons. Crucial's scanner tool has removed the need for any of that, allowing absolutely anyone to see what will be compatible with their system. Beyond that you merely need to know how much you want to spend - if you know that, you simply have to pick an option from the shopping section on the right hand side of the report page. This is an appreciation of how simply Crucial's developers have made it for the average joe to get it right first time without the element of doubt.

      To help you further evaluate your options, the on-screen report even shows you a graphical representation of the slots on your PC's main board, showing you which slots are already occupied by a component and the memory rating of the modules. All memory modules for home computers slot into the large motherboard, which all have a row of empty slots to accommadate varying amounts of components as necessary. It shows you how many slots are empty, and using Crucial's references to main board part numbers you are even shown how much maximum memory the board can utilise. The information really is detailed yet easy to see and understand, and provides the final missing piece to make memory purchasing something you can do from the computer chair with no need to go taking the side off the computer. Saves time, saves tools!

      As a technician for an IT company, I have seen reams and reams of memory modules from crucial.com installed in customer's PC's and we have had no experiences of memory going faulty after installation, and we've been using it for 2 years or more. We've also had great accuracy from crucial's all-important scanner tool, saving us time and removing any human error from the equation - we've had it pick the wrong memory only once out of many uses, which was entirely forgiveable due to ambiguous and aging hardware. Profit is also not shaved off delivery times either, as every order has been shipped very quickly and arrived promptly! This all proves crucial can provide good prices at no compromise to quality or efficiency, and for the foreseeable future will be our resource for memory.

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    • More +
      29.04.2012 16:47
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      Proving popularity has no correlation to quality

      There are different grades of comedy out there that we all know well enough about by now; there's observational stand-up comedy, situational comedy, awkward comedy, etc. However, there has always been one strange cousin that simply seems to alienate all but the most glint-eyed comedy connoisseurs - the brand I like to refer to as 'dangerously subtle' comedy.

      In this bracket I would list those such as 'Brass Eye' and 'The Day Today' - but now that category has found a new king: 'Look Around You'. If you like the aforementioned then you will positively love this because it simply flies over the head of most people, but probably not you! That doesn't immediately sound like a selling point if it's so niche that it fails to captivate mass popularity, but if you truly believe yourself to be a sharp-witted individual in tune with things on the fringe, put yourself to the test.

      'Look Around You' is a spoof that closely follows the format, strangely, of most typical secondary school educational science videos presumably from the 80's. I was in High School during the early 00's and videos like this were still in service and it's likely that this series will still be topical many years from now. The efforts by the directors to stay indistinguishably parallel to the actual bonafide educational videos is startling. Most spoofs are simply parodies or standard sketches with some kind of exaggerated observation. Not this one. If I was to place a bet, I'd say that any module of Look Around You stands the chance of running until about halfway until a class of teenage science pupils would actually cotton on to it's true intent. This lovingly faithful mimicking of real videos with dashes of genius dissolved into the solution actually earned Look Around You a BAFTA nomination

      9 'Modules' ranging from the brain to computer games cover about 70 minutes of running time, though watching it all in one sitting would be simply too much. The brain tires, the attention lulls and you're throwing away laughs. This is a comedy to which you must sit down and take in.

      Brilliant and so uncompromised. Every single scene has a joke in it's DNA but it just seems to build and build until you are straining for a release, and sure enough one will come but you just don't know when. It's unusual for comedy to leave you so tantalised, and for that you know Look Around You is special.

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    • Portal 2 (PC) / PC Game / 11 Readings / 10 Ratings
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      30.11.2011 20:02
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      Great game continuing the cult-status original

      If you missed the original Portal from just a few years back, then you would be in good stead to do some homework. Somehow portal made fusing puzzler, first-person platformer and storytelling seem like the golden blend, forming a huge fanbase as soon as word spread. I for one thoroughly enjoyed it and had never played anything quite like it before or since, and that in itself is remarkable in this day and age where there's not too many revolutionary advances happening in the games world.

      If you've been out of the loop for a while, the Portal series' hook is it's namesake. Solve physics-based puzzles in a clearly abandoned gigantic scientific facility by creating portals on solid surfaces in order to teleport yourself or objects to accomplish the task at hand. In text, this sounds kinda boring, and if you needed to know that in the first place then you sorely need to visit the first game to truely initiate yourself. Starting with Portal 2 would be as bad as starting a book at the halfway point.

      So for those who loved Portal and are merely flirting with the idea of paying for Portal 2, like I was, then you'll be glad to know that in summary it's worth it's fairly higher-than-expected price. Or rather, if you presumed Portal 2 to be as short as Portal and were bemused at the premium cost attached to the successor, then you will be surprised. I purchased Portal 2 in the autumn steam sale of this year for a pittance of £6, expecting a mere continuation of Portal and closure of the storyline. What I got, however, was a not a flighty diversion but a meaty and extended adventure with everything I loved about Portal and more. Clearly a lot more effort and care was transfused into the sequel to bring it easily in line with the standard of Valve's more mainstream titles such as Half Life. No matter which way you look at it, an already groundbreaking game has made further strides.

      Aperture Science Laboratories, the large human testing facility of the first game, is where we remain in Portal 2. The passage of time is evident and the damage sustained by the chaos previously seems to have taken it's toll. Level designers must have broken the bank with the extent of detail and scene-setting right from the start, and whereas you might already know Aperture as a vast facility, Portal 2 blows it wide open and allows you to experience a sense of scale from a different viewpoint. I've played a few games whereby some kind of gigantic structure seems to be centric to the game (Half life 2's citadel springs to mind), only none have felt quite so massive as Aperture Science. Your journey will even take you through the eerie condemned testing area of Aperture Science's original laboratory from the 50's/60's, hidden deep within a salt mine. This particular scene was my personal favourite place to be, as I absorbed the frighteningly teutonic environment. There's scene after scene whereby simply walking through them without taking the time to look around you and witness the meticulous designs can be a bit of a loss. In this respect, Portal 2 is happily replayable if you are interested in little treats and easter eggs. The developers crammed plenty into the first, and the sequel only capitalises on this.

      The game's shiny new graphics techniques are proudly displayed. A very lifelike and moody lighting technique is present and used to great effect whenever the player is not too pre-occupied to notice it. Take a jolly through pitch-black catwalks as wheatley lights the way with his torch, and you'll find the flickering shadows tantalisingly well-done. It's not always showcased so obviously, but certain scenes would not be possible without it.

      Scene setting is not merely done with visual designs, however. Audio is extremely important, and as an avid headphone user I was delighted to find just as much care was taken over the environmental ambience. I appreciate effort in audio, and when standing in the old condemned Aperture labs inside a ghostly mine cavern with the gigantic testing spheres looming overhead, while thunderous hollow steel was banging and creaking - it was magical and haunting. There are many scenes with a great sense of place but that is very much one of those really memorable scenes. The backing ambience itself is not a fixed entity and bends to suit the minor events taking place or the successes acheived while you're solving the puzzles. The heavily electronic and chaotic music used in the occasional times of panic or pressure may be a little bit distracting, but forgiveable.

      Almost all of the puzzle elements in Portal are present, and then some. A few have been updated or replaced - for example, instead of the gravity-defying wall-deflecting plasma balls we are given beam lasers, which not only look brilliant but their path can be altered using prism blocks to deflect the beams to wherever you desire. The crafty puzzle potential of lasers and portals is rather self-explanatory! The loveable robotic sentry turrets are back, and while you might have been faced with rooms full of them in the original game, in the sequel they are used much smarter and surgically. A lone turret may overlook an entire test room and force you to combine all the puzzle elements to remove the threat and allow you to pass. Yes, it goes beyond simply dropping weighted boxes on top of them this time. If you've seen the trailers for Portal 2, you'll have seen the bright orange and blue fluids introduced in this sequel. The blue repulsion gel is essentially a flubber-like material, allowing you to bounce off it at largely the same velocity at which you hit it, setting up some incredible puzzles focused on making that last leap of faith with the aid of this new blue material. The lifelike nature of this scientific gunge is only possible thanks to a never-before seen physical representation of liquids which is another great addition showcased in Portal 2. The orange fluid is a sort of acceleration gel, allowing you to make like Sonic and reach healthy speeds on foot. This can surmount to running headfirst into a portal at ground height in order to carry the momentum into the exit portal. It's merely another interesting way to build energy and launch you that extra bit. There's plenty of other puzzle elements too and they are all beautiful and smartly done, and throughout all of the challenges I really felt like no single device was forgotten about. Many of the chambers/puzzles have the distinct effect of being bewilderingly confusing at first glance, only to slowly click into place despite some of them employing a good number of the devices available. Such is the ease of use and application of Portal's new ideas that it's not totally obvious but never impossible, and a good reason for this is that there's no code-breaking or clue-hunting, only physical and visual challenges which everyone can enjoy. Portal's conundrums are always satisfying to solve and will spur you to carry on evermore.

      As a game with very few speaking roles, those that are there are not to be squandered. Portal's excellent character building and portrayal is lovingly continued hereon. The original game introduced us to the dark and stinging personality of Glados, and she is back in full splendor in Portal 2. Also brought to the stage is a co-protagonist of robotic build but far less omnipotent proportions, Wheatley. Voiced by Stephen Merchant, people familiar with the Ricky Gervais podcasts will love to hear the hilarious gangly bristolian in a role such as this, and those who are not acquainted will be delighted with the comic effect and candid delivery of all of his dialogue. Portal 2 surprised me with the amount of humour and laugh-out-loud moments, almost all of them pivoting around Wheatley. Wheatley provides the majority of comic relief this time, but Glados fans need not worry for she's still a primary and pivotal character, only you may find her in a different role than you'd ever imagined. Some classic gags are used to great effect and the strange sense of warmth in a previously cold and frigid facility is felt. There are also some brilliant funny set pieces which are only possible in the world of portal, and are therefore totally fresh. Whereas Glados couldn't really thrust much of a physical influence on the Aperture facility in the original portal, that idea has been perceived differently this time. Wheatley's messy introduction makes apparent the fact that the Aperture Science facility is actually completely at the whims of the robotic intelligences governing it, with gigantic sections of test chambers shifting into place before your eyes, and very crudely at points when a certain Wheatley is at the wheel. Portal's global environment is brought across brilliantly at every good opportunity, and where possible you are reminded of the fact that you are only a testing guinea pig under a very real threat. I found the mating of puzzle and storyline at the same time was seamlessly done and carefully planned for great pacing.

      Whilst portal's gameplay is predominantly about puzzles, there's no doubt in my mind that the main reason you will play to the end is the engrossing storyline. It's less of a storyline, and more of a chaotic soap opera whereby two robotic intellects lock horns via your existence, culminating in brilliant back-and-forth dialogue and power struggles. Friends and enemies don't become so clearly cut, and more of the origins of Aperture and it's artificial authority become clear in bitesize, teasing slices. The concept may be vaguely familiar, but the delivery is second to none. From start to bedazzling end Portal 2 is superb and is well deserving of praise. I purchased it at a cut price anticipating a clever puzzle game and some continuation of story. What I got was a blockbuster game which blew me away and left me grinning from ear to ear at every turn and was hard to predict. Whenever I thought I knew what was going to happen next, I was actually way off the scent and in turn loved the new direction the story was going. I've gone from indifferently purchasing, to must-not-miss, and so will you.

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    • More +
      29.11.2011 21:48
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      Great value and great performance, a must for racing game fans

      I am a huge fan of racing games, or simulators to be exact, as they are one of the few action sports that CAN be reasonably be reproduced when sat in front of a screen with the right tools. Fortifying this viewpoint is the fact that superb quality controllers are coming out of the woodwork recently, one of which being the Logitech G25 force feedback wheel. Well, not only that, but a full pedal box and a H-pattern shifter, something which before now was rarely seen packaged with a gaming accessory and was a luxury gadget attained seperately. But who doesn't want the thrill of simulating a real gearbox to add to the mixture? It's true to say that nearly all bases are covered, yet for the price of £125 you'd be let off for thinking that it's quantity over quality. This review aims to show you how wrong that assumption is.

      I own a PC and the G25's been my right-hand man for the duration of over 12,000 laps on my favourite racing simulators. That's got to be at the very least 300 hours, if not more, whereby this equipment has been under extended strain and pain while I'm muscling it for all it's worth as my on-screen cars are thrown around corners like no tomorrow. I'm a regular user of iRacing.com, a straight-faced racing simulator which is probably the best out of the clutch of available works out there.

      - The ring of power -

      The response, agility and strength of the steering wheel will be a delightful surprise to a serious racing-gamer. Driving over rough surfaces, kerbs or potholes will be felt distinctly and immediately, and the simulation of tyre grip and steering can be potentially arm wrenching. The range of resistance and the fluidity at which it is felt is a true cut above cheaper and even comparitively priced steering wheels. Whilst some other wheels inherently have a bit of residual resistance in the steering due to the friction of the gears and gubbins connecting it to the feedback motor, the G25 can deploy full force to no force in the blink of an eye, and back again. When I jump in and play, I can almost feel the sidewalls of the tyres crying out at full cornering forces, or the front wheels hunting for every rut and dip on the road as I make tiny corrections down the back-straight. If you are steering too much and allowing the front wheels to scrub across the road in streams of understeer, you'll know to back off. If you're hanging the back wheels in a slide because you got too heavy on the throttle, you'll feel the exact window of opportunity the front tyres give you to correct it. If you're traversing the undulations of a virtual oulton park or brands hatch, you'll feel the car go light as you simmer over the crests and feel it hunker down as you hit the basins. If you take a bit too much of that inside kerb into that chicane, expect an affirmative jolt from the wheel as opposed to a mild shudder. Just about every force that acts on a car is capable of interpretation by the G25, so if you are playing a quality racing simulator, rest assured that you've got a quality wheel.

      It's obvious that the guts and glory on track are gonna be translated into heat and noise, but compared to my previous controller, the logitech Momo, it's quiet. My racing sessions last perhaps an hour and a half of solid use at a time, and there is nothing to suggest that the wheel is not engineered to cope, except an acceptable level of heat from the motor, which as a unit is quite compact, too. 7 inches covers the distance between the front of the desk surface and the back of the motor housing, and the very rearmost point is only 2 and a half inches high - perfect for tucking underneath or cosying beneath a monitor or extra tabletop. To round it all off, the design of the main motor housing is quite attractive in itself, with a sleek and sloping nose almost resembling the bonnet of any mean sports saloon courting the roads today. It's hardly a block of plastic, but a dark and curvaceous cover.

      The build of the wheel itself is commendable and reassuring, featuring a hand-stitched leather wrap with stippled hand-grips and a healthy wheel diameter of about 9.5". This may sound small in real terms but is fairly consistent with a sportscar such as a Caterham. Maybe if you are a hand-perspiring madman you'll find that the textile becomes slightly slippery unless you make a point to dry your hands or wear gloves, but I find the leather to be a much more genuine and natural material than the squishy rubber my old Momo wheel used to have. Especially important should you desire to put the wheel through it's enormous 900 degrees of rotation, the plain and simple circular design is a simple pleasure that foregoes the fancy shapes some other manufacturers use to catch the eye. No frills to be found here except a solid-feeling and standardised (in a good way) steering wheel. The cross-sectional diameter of the grip itself is small and therefore more suited to people like me who hate the feel of a fat steering wheel which prizes your hand open and takes that little bit away from your sense of touch. A cross-section of about an inch in diameter makes this more akin to an 80's sportscar, before chunky, childlike units came into view. I tried a Fanatec wheel which fits this overgrown description and hated it, but it's worth taking into account that you'd get used to anything if you had used it for a while, so it's merely a matter of taste to a large degree.

      Behind the wheelgrips are two large plate-steel shift paddles for those times when you are driving a formula or top-end car which uses them. Far from weedy, the paddles can be used without being delicate, as slamming the paddles to the hilt means you are only hitting the plastic backstop, rather than the internals of the trigger switch. A nice foresight, this means that you can flinch your shift-fingers lightning quick and you'll get the response you need. Mine have easily witnessed thousands upon thousands of shifts, and are still good as new. The 'click' may not be anything substantial, but because you can simply pull sharply to ensure they bottom out, you need not be listening or feeling for one.

      On the wheel hub itself are two basic programmable clicky buttons. Two is not a lot, and when you've already binded them to look left and look right, there's no extra room on the wheel for pit speed limiters, handbrakes or anything else. This is my only proper grievance with the G25, and has been addressed by Logitech in the successor and more expensive G27. Still, it's good to know feedback has been heard, even if it doesn't directly benefit the G25.

      Mounted to your desk via two twist-knob table clamps, moving and removing the G25 is a low-stress task. Whereas my Momo needed 2 of these clamps plus an extra one underneath, the G25 does with the 2 highly accessible and quick-change fixtures. These clamps squeeze your desk surface by hanging two L-shape grips underneath, and these are quite low-profile as they hang only 2 inches below the surface. For me, this has meant that the G25 stays permanently fixed to my desk, to the right hand side. I've got enough room underneath to use my mouse with my other games and programs, yet when I decide to jump into a race, I can simply untwist the clamps, slide the wheel over and fix it down. Deployment is 10 seconds, if that, and I'm in game. If you are a hardcore accessory buyer, this need not matter as you'll surely have your G25 mounted to a dedicated racing chassis! Using a universal USB connection and branching the pedal and gearshift units from it, there's no need for more than one USB slot on your computer, so it's got a small cable footprint too. An AC adaptor is required to supply the external power, but is also included in the box.

      - The tactile talons -

      The G25's partner in crime, the pedals, are themselves well built and impressive considering the package as a whole. A clutch, a brake, and a throttle - everything you need at a good build and feel. I myself am an advocate of the heel-toe technique, which is sensitive to pedal placement and resistance. Logitech have catered for people like me, and thus I can ply my skill perfectly with these.

      The pedals resistance is not governed by springs, but gas struts. These bright red things are bracketed to the pedals and well housed, providing a smooth and noiseless operation of all 3 pedals. The clutch pedal is fairly weighted but is clearly lighter than in real life, even though my real daily driver has a hydraulic clutch and is already on the light side. The brake pedal also is nice and tough, though a trick seems to be missed whereby perhaps a hydraulic element could have been incorporated to provide a more realistic 'squeeze' of the brakes. But let's not be too demanding of such a good value package, as fussy and cash-happy drivers have already cottoned onto the existence of 'load cell brake pedals'; custom accessories which endeavour to simulate the hydraulic feel, but pricey is probably not the correct word! For now, the reasonable resistance of our brake pedal is still much better than the competition. The throttle pedal is largely the same story, but much lighter as to be expected.

      The construction of the pedals themselves is not light-duty. They could happily reside on the shelves of a motor-tuning store as real products, because that's probably the standard to which they're built. Thick, brushed steel adds real authority to a pedal set, yet you can still replace them with your own custom pedals if you wish. The pedals and the mounting brackets are seperate pieces which allows you to unscrew the standard units and fit your own. Forethought like this is a great score for enthusiasts. Quick feet are just as important as agile hands in Motorsport, and if you don't like the ordinary pedals then you're still OK. The base of the pedal set is large and stays put very well. Carpet users are in luck as the base features a flip-down spike footing, but owners of laminate-flooring may have to think of something else. Luckily my pedals are backed against the wall, but you may need a rubber mat or base to get by with these.

      High gear -

      The gearshift unit, which can accommadate H-pattern shifting from 1st to 6th gear plus reverse. The gear lever can also mechanically switch to sequential shifting mode, so that the gearstick becomes a simple push-pull stick, which is more suited to driving GT cars or mid-range racecars, like real life. Also on display are 4 extra buttons, which to be honest should be on the wheel, instead of on an off-hand peripheral such as this. Clamping to your desk surface similarly to the wheel, the gearshift unit is probably the odd one out in this package. Whereas the wheel and pedals feel sturdy and substantial, the same can not necessarily be said of this almost fully-plastic device. When I purchased my G25, I already owned a standalone Act Labs H-pattern shifter, worth about £70. When comparing, I much preferred the Act Labs shifter, but let's be fair - my old faithful shifter was hardly going to be toppled by a packaged unit which was probably worth half as much in real terms. In spite of this, friends who DO use the G25's shifter report that is does the job cleanly and well, and should not be sniffed at as an entry-level unit. If it's still alive after many frantic races, I trust that to be endorsement enough for the durability, even if it may not initially feel like it.

      The lever itself has a ball-shape top which sees a leather wrap similar to the wheel used on the knob and gaiter. The amount of throw is fairly small and selection is not quite as crisp, but it is far, far better than being stuck with sequential paddle shifting all your simulation life, and as mentioned is surely the perfect trainer for a more expensive unit in the future. I admit to being spoiled by my Act Labs shifter in this respect, and can only commend Logitech for refusing to make the shifter merely an optional extra and packaging it as one, even if it's outclassed by the wheel and pedals supplied with it.

      Command -

      Packaged with the G25 is the Logitech profiler software, featuring interfaces and drivers for your wheel to help you get going. Installation of a Logitech controller is often easy peasy, and such a rough and ready accessory is no different. Calibration and setup of the wheel is all handled in installation and you are walked through for most of it. Once installed, there are a handful of vital attributes which can be tweaked to your liking to make the force feedback translatable to you. With force feedback items, fettling and fiddling is important to make your wheel feel in tune to your senses, and things such as Spring effect and Damper effect can be adjusted with a simple slider. Up to 900 degrees of rotation are available - if you want it. It's important that this particular item is adjustable because personally I find it a bit too handy and somewhat disconnecting to have 2 and a half full rotations lock-to-lock, whereas some people love it and relish the frantic domination of the steering wheel. Some of these settings will appear to be another language for the typical layman, but if you follow advice from your respective game's experts, you can get the best out of your game and the adjustability will be well thanked for. On startup of your computer a self-test is done by the wheel whereby it will automatically steer the wheel lock-to-lock, provided it's plugged in. Most force feedback wheels do this, but the G25 stands out because the sheer speed at which the computer can rotate the wheel is testament to the agility and forces possible. Strength is adjustable, of course, but all bases are covered. If your chosen game does not offer changeable settings, Logitech's software does.

      Finish line -

      The G25 impressed me from day one and is still my most-used and most-loved accessory. Aiming to provide more brawn to the desktop PC, it delivers a wheel that can really move you. Before I bit the bullet and purchased one, I found it hard to imagine such a good controller would be reasonably priced, and however impressed I used to be with my old Momo, the G25 just destroyed those benchmarks. Logitech's successor, the G27, promises an improvement to the G25, such as more on-wheel buttons and even quieter or smoother operation, but as a basic package the G25 is worth the money, even if it was for the wheel alone. As a middle point between bargain basement wheels and professional bespoke equipment, this wheel has a great reputation for driving forward the level of quality expected. I've owned my Logitech G25 for around 3 years and I cannot praise it enough. When I have taken my car to a real trackday, I've had my G25 to thank for it's agile simulation of a real car!

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    • Dax Wave & Groom Pomade / Hair Care / 9 Readings / 7 Ratings
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      27.11.2011 18:17

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      A small tin of pain?

      I've been using Dax wave and groom for a while, and It's only now that I've took a step back and really paid attention to the effect it has. This hair wax does the same thing as not washing your hair for a week, making it frictional and rubbing it of it's sheen, without actually providing much of a hardening/stiffening effect, even on the short hair it proclaims to be designed for. You'd better make sure your scalp is battened down firmly when you're running this through your hair as the friction between your palms and your hair is quite high. It's not a joy to apply and seems to sap any healthy shine from your locks.

      Granted, the tin lasts a long time as you don't need much to get the job done, but after you've finished applying it you've basically got to give your hands a long scrub with handwash to strip off the thick layer of water-repelling wax. If you don't take time to give your mitts a decent wash after using Dax, you'll regret it when your hands stick to everything you touch and leave prints on glass and door handles.

      I've essentially just talked myself out of continuing to use this product as I'm sure there's got to be better, kinder and less goopy hair waxes or gels available that acheive results without feeling so bad.

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    • More +
      27.11.2011 17:55

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      The necessary platform for video recording and high-speed photography

      If you own a high-speed DSLR which is attempting to shove a torrent of data to your portable storage, the basic advice is to make sure you have an SD card which can take the offload without delibarating. A class 10 card will basically mean your modern camera will operate without any data bottlenecks whatsoever. Regardless of the resolution of photo or video you're shooting, you're not limited by anything except your camera specification. I use a Canon 550D SLR at maximum recording resolution with this particular SD card which happens to have buckets of space also. The class speed system also gives you an approximation of how quickly the card can be read, so if you've got 16GB of hefty photos and video to ship to your computer you won't be waiting any longer than absolutely necessary for your media to transfer across. For those who use it, a manual lock feature is present in the form of a small slider on the side of the card. For those without fingernails, I shouldn't worry about it! In summary, it's well up to the task. If you're browsing for a high spec photography device, you'll want one of these to house your recordings.

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    • Canon EF 50mm f1.8 MK2 / Camera Lens / 11 Readings / 9 Ratings
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      21.11.2011 20:39
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      Go back to basics to rediscover photography

      Using a highly adjustable Canon DSLR on the fly is sometimes more mentally taxing than we'd like it to be. Sometimes we just wanna point, click and move on to the next without wondering if there's any tricks we're missing or settings we haven't optimised. This fixed 50mm lens has the profound effect of making your more opportunist pictures consistently well presented and useable, without putting the onus on you to do anything but shoot WYSIWYG style. The reason for that is simple; no zooming means no standing still. When fitted with such a stubby and manueverable lens, the SLR goes from being a complicated and uptight beast to a user-friendly point-and-click camera that gets consistent results. It's more interesting and gets the creative juices flowing, too. My manager always comments on how his 13 year old son seems to take more interesting and intriguing photos on a cheap compact camera than he does with his SLR. Whilst he twiddles and fiddles with dials and taking great care in composing his images, his son simply sees, points and shoots. My camera worked it's way round many of my friends' hands who've never used an SLR and a lot of their photos have come out spectacularly. Not only will you find this dudey little 50mm lens in the box, but also the spirit of natural-feeling photography within.

      I've had this lens for a while and have toyed around with it in the home somewhat and not quite understood why I bought it. That was before I took it to a trip to Bournemouth, and there I begun to see the appeal. Without adjustable zoom, I was moving my body about much more and found framing my images a fluid and physical task, rather than just twiddling the zoom ring and standing still without feeling like I'm really doing anything with my body. This sounds like hard work, but often you'll move about and discover a viewpoint you'd never have thought of if you'd stayed still. This is not to say that you'll be prancing about or contorting yourself to get the shot you want, but instead it merely means you discover more untrodden ground while shooting. Whilst no good for macro photography portraying the finest details of intricate objects or indoor architectural photography, it can competently cover facial portraits from 2 feet away to long landscape shots of beaches or open spaces.

      Autofocusing is quick and to the point, as can be expected from such a compact lens. Zooming is not silent, but whereas my telescopic 300mm lens may take a second to go from one end of the spectrum to the other, the 50mm is there in the blink of an eye and rarely struggles to find your focus point. A curious puppy, aviary birds, tentative squirrels; all were captured brilliantly as I briskly readied my cam in no time at all with no searching or hunting for focus, reinforcing the 50mm as a direct and dependable lens. I know a certain kit lens which may have missed the shot as I paused to contemplate how much zoom I wanted, whereas the 50mm removes this line of thought altogether.

      One of the standout points of this lens is the ability to go down to an aperture level of F1.8. This makes available a tighter depth of field than most entry-level equipment out there. If you are a big fan of photography using out-of-focus objects to your advantage, then this lens will be a great little toy. In addition to this it allows faster shutter speeds to minimize the amount of motion blur or camera shake, as the smaller the aperture amount, the more light floods in. However, if you rely on keeping the lens at this aperture level just to reduce motion blur then you will not get the best shots unless you specifically need this small an aperture dial. Photos taken with this lens tend to come out best when shot through at least 4.0 or about. Maxing out the aperture dial to 1.8 is useful for specific preconcepted shots where you know what you're trying to get, and I've had brilliant shots of birds and animals where getting in close on a solitary subject against a distant background has been possible. If you try to use this for normal landscape or group photography you may find a lack of clarity on anything except the exact depth you focused at.

      My Canon 50mm lens is attached to my new 550D SLR and I find it very easy to keep steady when shooting stills or video, provided I ready myself as I take the shot. With such low weight there's only miniscule offset centre of gravity for your hands to keep aloft. It's a noticeably lighter lens than the kit 18-55mm pieces you may have been using if it came with your camera. It's light because it's body is made almost entirely of plastic, but it's far from cheap-feeling in my opinion. Compact and robust without resorting to artificially weighting it with steel parts.

      In summary, this 50mm fixed lens is a risk reducer. Gone will be the days when you zoom in to save yourself from a few paces walking, only to find excessive camera shake or lack of depth in the photo. Get up close and consistently compose good photos. Upstart connoisseurs may comment on the lack of external steel parts, but it's neither here nor there when attached to your DSLR. It's strange to say that a camera with less features than the standard lens is an upgrade, but if you try this lens you'll see the appeal - and it won't cost all that much to do so.

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      • Sennheiser HD 595 / Headphones / 6 Readings / 6 Ratings
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        13.11.2011 14:01
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        Brilliant hardware that is surely the ideal primer for the HD650's

        I started with Sony MDR-ED21LP (£15), upgraded to Sennheiser HD202 (£30), then Sennheiser HD280 Pro (£60), and here we are today with the Sennheiser HD595 (£120). I think both you and I know where this is going and it doesn't look cheap, but until the time I fork out £240 for a pair of headphones, I am most pleased with the performance, reliability and durability of my HD595's over the past 2 years.

        Whenever I have been away from home for a week or two, there are a few things I miss. A cup of tea made at home. My car. My Dogs. My HD595's. Sad as it may seem, I simply love the little bubble these headphones can provide. A world where everything sounds sublime and all your favourite artists and music are at your fingertips and pumped through your ears to a standard I can't get anywhere else. High end treble is frisky and bright, mid-ranges are all-encompassing and ethereal and the bass is powerful without resorting to brute force. Here are headphones that can do everything well without compromise.

        In the box you'll get your headphones aswell as a jack adaptor for those who might be using the small 3mm connection as found on MP3 players and a fair share of PC sound cards. A nice element of foresight also comes included in the form of a headphone hanger, which is a padded and curved rest for your headphones when not in use. The rest itself clamps to a shelf or flat surface much like a G-clamp, and such an item speaks volumes about the manufacturer's feelings; "Treat these headphones with respect, as we've put a lot of effort in to get them just so. Thou shalt not lie them down on a random work surface, but instead at height, on a tailor-made throne". After all, the HD595's are an attractive piece of kit, with the gun metal grey earcups bejewelled with an attractive black mesh centre, slightly hazing and mystifying the trademark Sennheiser 'S' logo beneath. Why wouldn't you want them on display?

        I have steadily upgraded my listening hardware over time, and in my experience it's not only the sound quality which improves with each renewal but the comfort and fit, too. My HD202's and HD280's sat on top of my ears rather pork-pie-esque, but the HD595's earcups are actually large enough to totally surround the ears, which has a double-whammy in the form of vastly increased surround effect. Everyone who has used my headphones has always remarked how the sound seems to be coming from all around you. Comfortable with an adjustable padded headband, you can happily laze for hours with these on your head and forget about them. No cauliflower ears here, though I do still like to whip them off for 5 minutes when I stick the kettle on.

        Being 'open' earphones, this means that generally speaking the clarity and spatial effects are better compared to 'closed' headphones, but at a small cost. For one, whatever you listen to will leak out from the headphones, so think twice before you blast out your N-sync tunes you've secretly loved for years, because anyone in the same room will soon know about it! The soundproofing is also thin the other way too but as these are not the sort of headphones you'd use for waltzing down the town centre with, I don't think that matters much. As I sit here typing I can hear every keystroke through my music, and you might get the impression that would be a big deal - it's not, and soon you appreciate the fact that you can still hear things going on around you.

        My Sennheisers have been solidly serving for 2 years with no sign of deteriorating. If they ever croak, I will have no choice but to go for the big ones - the Sennheiser HD650's - because I have complete faith that with Sennheiser you really do get what you pay for, every time. For those who are unconvinced that anyone can justify spending so much on headphones, they need only try the HD595's for proof. They are the Gallardo to the Murcielago. Brilliant in it's own right yet there is still one higher model on offer when you are ready for it, and I've got my eyes on it.

        As I have mentioned, my HD595's are mated to my beloved Asus Xonar which I reviewed previously. If you are interested in this hardware, it's vital that you take account of my experiences with that also. They will still sound good, but they simply won't be able to deliver the level of sound they're capable of if you don't provide a good driver for them.

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      • More +
        07.11.2011 20:07
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        Great monitor, justified value for money

        Boy am I glad to own one of these. If I had to put up with all the other LCD screens I see every day on the work run, I'd have to lift all my information through comparitively fluffy, fuzzy and dull monitors. 2 years on from initial purchase, as my first ever LCD screen the Samsung has earned a bit of brand loyalty. Chosen with pre-researched popular opinion taken on board, I'm glad to now pass on my own praises for a great premium screen.

        Unpacking the Syncmaster from it's carry-handle box brings to attention how large 22 inches really is in display terms. Beautifully clad in a partially transparent, curvy shell. Stylishly adorned with a subtle gradient of red colouring emanating from the bottom lip. In fact, the more observations I make the more it sounds like a full-blown premium television design scaled down for desk use, in that the attention to design evident in Samsung's large screens does indeed extend to their computer accessories too. Instead of looking boring and business-like, we get affluent and presentable - qualities which can serve both the home and the business. Speaking of style concerns, there's only one button on the front face and that isn't a traditional push-button but is instead operated by touch. Swiping your finger across the tiny white power symbol is all it really takes to switch off and on. Whilst it lacks the physical feedback, I find using it to be a rare occasion over just powering off at the plug. So, until it's time to switch off for the night, a soft orange glow seemingly 'bakes' the button to indicate power on. There are certainly no distracting exposed LEDs or garish backlit buttons on display. Attention to subtle detail and design such as this shows that you don't lose any form when choosing function.

        At first, the way the metal-backed stand didn't sit perfectly flush to the rest of the screen had me downright confused. Confused enough, actually, to make me think I'd been supplied a duff component and was about to do some wholesale metal grinding until I took one last look at the instruction manual and realised that it's not meant to be perfectly flush. Although the stand and screen were solid and sat perfectly stable on the desk, the 2-3mm protrusion was enough to throw me off-course a bit. Call off the DIY squad - it's seemingly by design, allaying my fears. Proof enough, I can bolt my fairly strong force-feedback steering wheel to the same bit of wood my screen is perched and I do not witness a Rolf-Harris approved wobble-fest when playing my beloved racing simulations.

        When fine-tuning the display of the Samsung you've got 5 buttons tucked behind the front bezel, on the right hand side. Pressing the top one, 'menu', will bring up an on-screen directory which also indicates what each button is so that you can do just about anything without needing to physically see them. All the standard settings such as brightness and contrast are present, and as I speak mine are sitting in the mid-range. Rather than some other monitors which sit at the high-end of the brightness/contrast spectrum, this can sit in the middle with plenty of maneuvering room either way. However there are many more extras to explore, such as 'MagicBright', which contains a few presets to change the baseline settings of the brightness and contrast - of which one will surely suit you. RGB settings are there, of course, and 'MagicColor' offers limited presets if you don't want to manually define the tones of the display. Colour tones and effects are available to play with, including 'warmth' tones or 'grayscale' and 'sepia' - though just as they are to be played with, they're admittedly not much more than toys and serve no real use that I have witnessed yet. Gamma, sharpness and even the brightness of the little power button glow I described earlier can be adjusted. There's a lot in this monitor that a user can influence if they really want to. Most are fire-and-forget settings but it's important for a premium monitor to have a large range of customisation. What may seem fine for me may be dull and underlit for you, and vice versa - but no matter, for you're covered regardless of preference.

        So, at 22 inches, it's no tamagotchi. Enough for a native resolution of 1680x1050, you will find that nothing ever looks undefined unless it's by design. This monitor is my weapon of choice for browsing and editing large photographs and images in Photoshop and working on colourful, graphical projects by eye. I also play my fair share of games with this screen and find it to be the crispest, most pronounced image I've ever had. The matt-effect screen itself is a crucial design choice for eliminating reflections and sunlight from bleaching image, making it friendly for use in a bright room. Gloss-finish screens found with some other manufacturers may look nice sat in the corner of the room, but are less user-friendly when actually being used due to reflecting anything and everything back at you. At night, the LCD is of high enough quality to remain pin-sharp even when displaying very bright text on a dark background. Older LCD's seemed to be washed out in my opinion, and is one of the reasons I held off so long getting one myself - the apprehensions turned out to be totally unfounded from day one of ownership of the Syncmaster. From high quality videos and pictures in the day to dark and drab survival horror games in a dark room at night, In all types of games and videos the Syncmaster brings a 2 dimensional image as close to 3 dimensional as can be done, simply through the brilliant reproduction of constrast and colour. If I absolutely had to draw upon an apt and well-used phrase, it's that this screen is pixel perfect every time.

        As a product, it's a job well done. When someone wants a recommendation for a screen with a certain spark, Samsung will ever get my vote. Unfaltered for pictures, video, text, games, colours - everything. If you're prepared to pay a little more than ordinary make-do screens, it'll live up to Samsung's reputation and more importantly it'll justify your extra dosh.

        *Edit: One useful thing I've omitted is that this screen is not wall mountable with your bog-standard mounting kits. There are no 4-point threaded holes on the back of this particular monitor.

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        • Asus Xonar Essence STX / Sound Card / 18 Readings / 14 Ratings
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          05.11.2011 00:03
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          Delivers everything you'd hope and more

          Behind every pair of headphones should be a good sound chipset. That's the idea, and hopefully anyone who knows anything about good audio would adhere to that. For those who can't figure out why their big expensive headphones aren't quite performing as well as they'd imagined, read on;

          Large and sophisticated headphones require extra power and feed which is not supplied by onboard sound cards (plugging it straight into your computer's built-in motherboard jack), nor by lower-spec hardware sound cards. I myself was using a Creative Audigy 2 beforehand and found it had nowhere near enough guts to power my brand new Sennheiser HD595's. If your headphones lack power or pop and crackle through bassy frequencies, step in the Asus Xonar.

          The guys behind the Xonar obviously take these things seriously; the bundle you find in the box can have you wringing your hands and drooling with anticipation. Inside, besides the sound card itself, is a fancy looking test report booklet showing how the boxed hardware performed in the various quality control tests from the factory. A very nice addition, it shows an awareness that the majority of customers are discerning enthusiasts, not just random shelf-browsers stumbling upon their product. If we are being honest, that particular item will be perused through very briefly if at all before moving on - after all, sound cannot be represented on paper as well as it can in our ears. The Xonar features a few different audio output jack options; the standard big-jack 6.3mm as used by most high-end headphones, RCA stereo outputs (used for speaker systems), Line-in (for microphones) and an S/PDIF optical out, normally used for home theaters though this has been unused by myself. The card itself is packaged beautifully, masking most of the many capacitors under an anodised metal cloak with the stylish Xonar emblem adorned atop it. If you are stuck for bits to hook your gear up, there are a few complimentary adaptors included. Amongst them is a very handy 6mm to 3mm adaptor, which I personally use to make my budget desk microphone fit the 6mm line-in jack meant for big-boy mics. Also together in the pack is an RCA stereo Y cable which I use to mate my cheap Hercules desk-speakers to the Xonar. It's nice to have these extras included - they can't cost much to be included but some manufacturers still seem to omit little extras like this.

          The STX model uses a mini-PCI connection to your motherboard. This is a common feature on motherboards nowadays but be very aware that some don't. Check your motherboard sockets just to be sure to avoid disappointment. Once physically installed, the supplied driver disc will have you well on your way - there are no unnecessary extras or unwanted applications alongside the required software. The controller software, entitled Xonar Essence STX Audio Centre, sits as a tray icon next to your computer clock and is just double clicked in order to pop up the full range of features. There's plenty to play around with but what you do from here is all down to the hardware you're using and your own personal preferences. The arsenal of audio-bending weapons include Dolby Headphone, Dolby Pro Logic 2, Flexbass, a fully functional equaliser and more. You're certainly not left wanting with customisation if you feel it's needed; I myself am very content with a tweaked equaliser alongside enabling 'Dolby Headphone'. Without them, I find the audio too flat and 'close to the ears', but I must reiterate that different headphones accept different setups, so don't be afraid to experiment with the add-ons and variables.

          So, compared to my old Creative Audigy 2 soundcard (which was a good sound card in it's time anyway) was it worth the £140+ price I paid for it? Well in a word, absolutely. 2 years on from the date of purchase, I would adamantly recommend it. When I paired my hardware to the Xonar, I simply HAD to listen to EVERYTHING again - it was worlds apart. Underpowered and underwhelmed was what I felt when hanging my new headphones off my old Creative card. The Xonar gave a defibrillating jolt of life to them and I have enjoyed audio bliss ever since. Anyone who listen to familiar songs with this pairing of products always comments on how alive everything sounds, and when playing games or watching films it cannot be beat. So far I have had no incompatibilities between my Xonar and any software or games I have used, and that cannot be faithfully said for some less-known brands.

          If you make the leap for a high-end sound card and it happens to be the Asus Xonar Essence STX, hand on heart it will be be the best audio experience you've ever heard from a computer, if not in general. I had expectations for it from the start but even so I was still taken aback. Highly recommendable.

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        • York Fitness Bodygym / Fitness / 7 Readings / 7 Ratings
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          04.11.2011 19:07
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          Good to start with, variety of activities possible but not for muscle-men

          If you're looking to pump some serious iron and become beefcake, this is not for you - but if you're more concerned with getting into shape and challenging your body in the comfort of your own home, then you're on the right path.

          The York Bodygym is well constructed with no beating around the bush - deceptively stable and grounded despite the narrow footprint. For one it's a heavy piece of kit which will push your boundaries in the act of merely moving it, and you'll need to take stock of all your fingers to ensure they are still in one piece after unfolding the deckchair-like construct. Some initial assembly is required but that would namely be just a couple hooks and strings. The 'trolley', which will be your platform from now on, is a foam cushioned board which is adequately comfortable for kneeling or lying on. During exercises it was never a cause for pain or pressure on my knees or back, which means that if you can't hack it then it's just you and not the equipment. That's a GOOD thing. In terms of total space, the bodygym can consume a lot if you're looking to properly explore all of the things that you can do on it. We're talking a floorpan of about 2 metres squared, mostly for the wings-aspread actions that come with the chest-flies and alike.

          Users sit, lie or kneel atop the padded trolley and perform a range of routines. Supplied with the bodygym is a large, double-sided exercise sheet demonstrating and explaining a whole spectrum of activities complete with concise pictures of models performing them. It's nice to see a bit more instruction than the typical postage-stamp explanations or advice you typically find with some fitness gear. Using the string-bound handles on either side of the pulley hooks at the head of the frame, you and the castor-fitted trolley 'climb up' the sloped rails as you pull. A slightly strange feeling; you yourself are the weight, and the effort required is proportional to your mass. All tasks are worked through in a lying, sitting or kneeling position facing either up or down. There are 5 levels of difficulty but it is far from a quick-release effort to change between them. Going through the motions of unscrewing a linchpin from a threaded hole and removing it completely and then retightening seems unnecessarily slow. A slide-in pin would have made this process much quicker and far less of an obstruction. As the angle of the trolley increases, you had better make sure you're wearing something which won't leave you sliding slowly down the faux-leather face of the trolley!

          Because of the freeform nature of this equipment, you will find that your core muscles are used far more than they would be on a massive multi-gym variety. This is a great thing, as the abdominal muscles are probably neglected more than any other group by keep-fitters, whereas they should consume much of your focus and attention. Using the bodygym won't make you a beefcake as the capacity for pushing-the-limit is not really there, but as a tool for maintaining good figure and form then it can deliver. The bodygym demands but also promotes good posture and form during exercising.

          The useable life of the sturdy bodygym is no doubt years in length, but I found the application of it was not quite so consistent. After months of usage I have since turned my nose up at my bodygym after some time and prefer to focus on running, rowing and swimming at my nearest gym. Being as cheap as it was, I've no qualms about stashing it away in the shed until one day I may find use for it.

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