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Of the three major types of over-the-counter painkillers -- aspirin, ibuprofen and paracetamol -- the last is the one I use by far the most. This is in part because it is generally the safest for people with diabetes, on account of its lack of significant side effects. (Ibuprofen, by contrast, can cause problems for those with impaired kidney function, a common complication of diabetes.) Of course you should always be guided by medical professionals, and take account of any other medicines you might be taking at the time, but if you're standing in Boots with a headache, paracetamol is likely to be your best bet.
The odd thing about paracetamol, though, is that it's simultaneously one of the safest drugs available *and* one of the most potentially dangerous. This is because it has what is known as a narrow therapeutic index -- in plain English, this means that the multiple of an effective dose which becomes a dangerous dose is quite low. This is the reason that most shops will not let you buy more than two 16-caplet packs at once: even those 32 pills, despite being just four times the maximum stated does, could be fatal in certain cases. And you really, *really* don't want to die from paracetamol overdose: delayed liver failure is a slow and painful way to go.
Okay, that's enough scary stuff, so let's get on to the packaging. As befits the cheapest brand of paracetamol on Boots' shelves, the box is exceptionally boring, with a couple of red flashes being all that relieves the otherwise monochrome packet. But who cares about that, really? If I saw a design full of lurid colours and jaunty designs when I had a horrible headache (or indeed one of the other problems for which paracetamol is suggested, such as toothaches and sore throats) then I suspect I'd just think "Argh, my eyes need a rest from all this icky muck!" The plain black on white of the rear text is certainly a relief, and the language used is simple and plain. Of course, there's still the Braille text as well, which I think all medicines now have.
Open up the box, and inside you'll find the expected couple of foil sheets, into each of which is packed eight caplets. The cheapness of this brand is slightly in evidence here, in that the pills don't pop out absolutely effortlessly when you press them, but it really isn't a big problem. You'll see printed on the foil that these things are made by Galpharm, a name you may well have come across before as they seem to be responsible for most of the unbranded/cheapo painkillers on the market! I've never had any problems with Galpharm medicines, so I find it quite reassuring to read their name here.
Caplets are a sort of middle ground, their oval shape making them easier to swallow than traditional large, round tablets; but without the smooth coating that makes the slightly more expensive capsules so easy to take. I don't have much trouble with any type, but there's no doubt that the Value Health caplets *do* slip down your throat a little more easily than basic tablets. And then all you can do is wait... generally I find that 10-15 minutes is enough for pain relief to begin, though that does vary a bit depending on the usual factors -- whether you're very tired, whether you have something else to think about, etc.
The main attraction of this brand (or "un-brand") is its low price: a mere 16p for 16 caplets makes this among the cheapest painkillers on the market. Older children (over six) can be given paracetamol, too, which is a very useful advantage over the likes of aspirin. All in all, it's very hard to complain about Boots Value Health Paracetamol Caplets, and though they won't help that much with really severe pain (for which you should ask a professional for advice) the everyday aches that we all suffer from every so often are relieved enough that the price looks a bargain. Recommended.
** Introduction **
It's probably true to say that, these days, Blackadder II would never have been made. The first Blackadder series, The Black Adder - on which the BBC had lavished a large budget, big-name actors such as Brian Blessed and copious location shots - had been something of a disaster financially and not that much better received critically. Had it been produced in the 2010s rather than the 1980s, it's arguable whether it would now be remembered as anything more than a minor cult classic. However, three decades ago, the Beeb was still willing to give programmes more than two microseconds to prove their worth. (Maybe the decline of the successful sitcom has something to do with the fact that audiences need to be allowed to "grow into them", but that this is no longer acceptable to the executives?)
** Setting **
In the original series, Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) had played a cowardly and usually rather stupid duke, with his servant Baldrick (Tony Robinson) being clearly the more intelligent of the two. In what turned out to be an inspired move, this was completely reversed for the second series. Blackadder became a scheming, devious and occasionally even cunning rogue, while Baldrick was reduced to the status of "the creature from the black latrine". Oddly enough, this had been the original plan way back when the first pilot episode was made - though few people know this, as the pilot has never been seen in public except as a poor-quality bootleg. (It is not officially known why this frustrating state of affairs has persisted for so long, though rumour has it that Atkinson himself has blocked the pilot's release. If true, disappointing in the extreme. I've seen it, and it's funny.)
In Blackadder II, the action moves to Tudor times. Edmund (the great-grandson of the original) is now a lord at the court of Queen Elizabeth, played as a giggling schoolgirl by the brilliant Miranda Richardson. Other courtiers include Patsie Byrne's rotund and scatologically-minded Nursie, Stephen Fry in a surprisingly restrained turn as the clergyman Lord Melchett, and Tim McInnerny as Edmund's desperate-to-be-a-friend-but-isn't-reall​y Lord Percy. This little group interact very nicely, and although this is an unusual sitcom in that although it's relatively short on catchphrases (even "I have a cunning plan", which comes into its own in later series, isn't yet fully formed) you nevertheless quickly get a feel for what any given character is likely to do in any given situation. This is very much a character-driven comedy, in the mould of early Red Dwarf, and to my mind it's all the better for it.
** Episodes **
There are six episodes in the series, and all of them are at least good, with all offering something slightly different. Perhaps the finest, though, is "Potato", in which Edmund and his cronies end up sailing away to discover new lands for the Queen. This episode is most memorable for the appearance of Captain Redbeard Rum, played in hilariously over-the-top fashion by none other than jobbing ex-Time Lord, Tom Baker. The sequence in which Edmund hires him as his captain is one of the silliest, and most memorable, in all of British comedy - the title of this very review is a tribute to it. As if that weren't enough, the same episode also features Simon Jones, probably best remembered for his leading role in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as Sir Walter Raleigh. The Doctor meeting Arthur Dent in Elizabethan England? Why not, I say!
I will also give a special mention to "Head", the episode in which Edmund is roped into becoming Lord High Executioner - a job with a life expectancy of under a week; and "Money", which introduces us to the Baby-Eating Bishop of Bath and Wells, another almost pantomime-like character. In fact, the panto feel is very strong at times, no more so than in the very first episode - "Bells". Here, the character of "Bob" is clearly being acted in the manner of a Principal Boy, right down to being played by a young woman, and there are frequent "bits of business" and fourth-wall-breaking asides to camera. Miriam Margolyes puts on a splendid turn as the Puritan Lady Whiteadder ("wicked child!") in "Beer", an episode nevertheless I feel is rather uneven overall. Unfortunately, the series finalé, "Chains", is for me the weakest of all six. Still very good by the standards of most sitcoms, but certainly the episode I watch the least.
** Buying and verdict **
The BBC has been known to make some truly sumptuous transfers of VHS releases onto DVD. I regret to say that this is not one of them. Actually, the picture quality on the Blackadder II disc is downright poor in places, and this is a real disappointment given the standard of the underlying material. It might not have bothered anybody 20 years ago on a standard-definition 14-inch television, but on today's much larger and sharper screens, the poor transfer is sadly all too evident. You do get used to it quite quickly, in much the same way as you do when watching a film with a mono soundtrack, but it's a shame that the Beeb couldn't have put a bit more effort into this side of things. There are also no extras at all - unless you count scene selection and subtitles, which you shouldn't - which is a pretty poor show all round.
Nevertheless, this is a wonderful sitcom, one of the finest of all British comedy series, and unless you're one of that minority who loved the original Blackadder for what it was, you will almost certainly love it. Yes, the presence of Ben Elton on the scriptwriting team means a slightly tiresome number of puerile jokes. Yes, the thing is chock-full of anachronisms and liberties with factual history. Yes, Lord Flasheart (Rik Mayall) steals the entire show despite being in it for just the final five minutes of one episode. Yes, the budget seems to have been reduced to about three groats. But it's fast-paced, it's genuinely witty, it's inventive and the actors are virtually all at the top of their game. Considering that you can pick it up from Amazon for £5.99, Blackadder II is a vital purchase, and scores five stars even with that dodgy picture quality.
** Introduction **
Having recently finished a substantial series of fantasy books ostensibly for older children written by one Philip (Pullman) I found myself starting on something very similar written by another Philip (Reeve). While His Dark Materials is a trilogy, this one is a quartet (which name is used in preference to "tetralogy" by Reeve). Having finished the first book in the series, Mortal Engines, I think I've made a pretty good choice, and I would happily recommend it to most 11 to 16 year olds, though perhaps only for quite advanced readers at the lower end of that range. The few exceptions will, I hope, become clear as I go through this review, but what I will say up here is that this is not a book for the squeamish reader, or anybody who wants a straightforward story in which the line between good and evil is sharply delineated.
** Plot and setting **
Mortal Engines has one of the best opening lines I've seen in children's fiction - or indeed any fiction - for quite some time: "It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea." Who could read a sentence like that and not want to know more? Not me, that's for sure, and I was hooked from there on in. As it turns out, that intro is not some strange metaphor; it's a simple description of fact, for London is a Traction City - a vast, many-tiered city on wheels whose giant engines in its underground Gut propel it across the plains of the Great Hunting Ground (what was once Europe) in search of prey. That prey being smaller cities it can devour. That, again, is a literal description: the Gut "digests" the captured city by scrunching up its raw materials, metal and so on, for use by London, while its inhabitants become workers - or slaves - for the victorious city.
Here in London lives Tom Natsworthy, a lowly Third Class Apprentice of the Guild of Historians, one of the four powerful Guilds that influence the way the city is run, under the overall direction of the all-powerful Lord Mayor. It is, as several characters remark, a town-eat-town world, where Municipal Darwinism reigns supreme, and so staying one step ahead of the opposition is vitally important. Quite early on in the book, Tom meets Thaddeus Valentine, a remarkable man who has long been his great hero for his daring feats of archaeology; this is a post-apocalyptic Earth, set centuries after the terrible Sixty Minute War, where scraps of "Old-Tech" left by the Ancients, such as the shiny round "seedy" are cherished and coveted as rare and valuable treasures. Tom saves him from being murdered by a young woman, but before long both of them are tipped off the city entirely, to fend for themselves on the dreaded "bare earth" where only savages live... except that the woman is Hester Shaw, who has a complex and often tragic history.
** Writing and characterisation **
One thing that it takes a little while to get used to in Mortal Engines is the (deliberately) screeching contrast between moments of high comedy and those of extreme tension, sometimes at the same time. This is actually a very violent book indeed - truly, the body count in Mortal Engines is absolutely enormous - and what's so disorientating about it is that characters are bumped off at the most unexpected times, quite often straight after they've appeared for all intents and purposes to have become central to the plot. Nor can the reader assume that matters of morality are straightforward: Hester in particular is often inclined to shoot first and ask questions... well, not at all. And here's the thing: she often does. She kills people, not all of whom you're entirely convinced should have died. Sometimes people help Tom and Hester and still get killed in cold blood. You can never settle back and assume Mr A is bad and Ms B is good.
This makes those aforementioned comedic scenes quite uncomfortable at times. For example, the chief god of London is Quirke, and so a frequent exclamation of surprise is "Great Quirke!", which really can't look anything other than silly. (There's almost no conventional bad language in the book, and nor is there explicit sex or drug-taking: this isn't a Melvin Burgess novel!) There are also some delightful in-jokes in the names: the mayor of one small Traction City - Tunbridge Wheels - is called Chrysler Peavey, and has a daughter called Cortina. Some of the references are really quite obscure: there's an airship (this is very much a steampunk novel!) called the 13th Floor Elevator, and without the might of the internet to help me I doubt I would ever have realised that the name comes from The 13th Floor Elevators, a 1960s American rock band! This is definitely one of those books that 12-year-olds could read once and enjoy, then re-read a few years later with enjoyment as they appreciated subtle references they might have missed the first time around.
Reeve's writing style is quite distinctive, but it does take a little bit of getting used to. It's certainly not as sweeping or expansive as Pullman's, and the book does feel a little "younger" in tone, despite all the dark themes: murder, torture, slavery and the like. You wouldn't read this and His Dark Materials and imagine for one second that they could be by the same author, certainly. One thing I wasn't really sure about was the way that Reeve swaps freely between tenses, with (on the whole) Tom and Hester's narrative taking place in a conventional past tense but the mysterious "Stalker" cyborg Shrike and his accomplices being described using the historic present. I found it mildly distracting, and don't think it really added anything that couldn't have been achieved by sticking to the past tense throughout. This sort of perspective-swapping can work (for a similar, but differently realised, idea see Terry Pratchett's excellent Reaper Man) but here I could have done without it.
** Buying and verdict **
There are a number of different covers for Mortal Engines, including the near-obligatory "adult" one for those embarrassed to be seen reading a "kids' book" on the train. (Silly people.) I'm not fond of the newer children's edition cover, with a rather ugly Medusa's head symbol, and much prefer the stylish original edition showing a balloon against a striking orange sky. You can buy the book for £4.12 including postage from Amazon, and there are heaps of second-hand copies available, the cheapest of which are £2.81 (1p plus £2.80 delivery). For that sort of price, Mortal Engines is an absolute must-read for anybody - not just the official target audience - with a taste for original, tough, imaginative fantasy/science fiction which forces readers to think for themselves and which understands that the real world comes in shades of grey. The violence is really the only potential problem, but Roald Dahl's books are full of unpleasant happenings and he did all right for himself! Highly recommended.
[And yes, the review title is supposed to be spelt like that!]
** Introduction **
Those of us interested in retro gaming have to blink a bit when we realise that the original Sony PlayStation (PS1), which at the time of its launch felt like something coming to us from the distant future, is now well into the second half of its second decade of life. However, that can be seen as an opportunity rather than something depressing, since it's now possible to pick up a console and some excellent games for an absolute pittance; my local branch of Cash Converters regularly sells PS1 CDs for 50p a time. Many of them are terrible, as with any other system's games, but there are some real gems in there as well - and Gran Turismo 2 from 2000 (they'd had it since 1999 in America, as per usual) is most assuredly one of these.
** Arcade mode **
There are two distinct modes of play in GT2, of which Arcade is both the easier to pick up and - to my mind at least - by far the less interesting of the two. As its name suggests, it takes a fairly simplified approach to the game, offering you a choice of cars - some of them, such as the Chevrolet Corvette - pretty powerful beasts and a choice of tracks, asking you whether you want a "Racing" or a "Drifting" setup and pretty much leaving you to get on with it from there. Extra options, such as more tracks, open up if you have completed certain tasks from the other disc, so if you just opt for what you think is an easy life and stick entirely to Arcade mode, you'll be missing a lot. Still, it does allow you to drive cars you'd have to work hard at to obtain in the other mode - and multiplayer, such as it is (actual net play is only possible via certain emulators) is found here too.
** Gran Turismo mode **
You might see this referred to as the "Simulation disc", since that's how it was sold in North America. The European title is rather more accurate, since although the cars handle in a less arcadey way than in, well, Arcade mode - and the position of a car's engine and driven wheels certainly do make a big difference, which is a very welcome factor indeed - they're still a far cry from a real simulation. Even some other PS1 driving games - Need for Speed: Porsche 2000 comes to mind - have more sim-like handling, and the PC game Grand Prix Legends, which was roughly contemporaneous, is on a different planet in that regard. This is probably sensible for a console racer, given that (at the time, at least) PlayStation gamers tended to be less hard-core than PC racers.
Although there are a number of races (especially the manufacturers' one-make series) that you can enter freely, for the "career mode" events you'll need to have attained your licence. There are six of these - B, A, International C, B and A, and finally Superlicence - though the last-named isn't initially shown. Getting hold of the lower-level licences is pretty easy for the most part: I've played this game on a PC emulator using only the keyboard and got my International C licence with few problems, and only failed to get the International B because it includes a couple of slalom tests, where it's almost impossible to get into the requisite smooth flowing rhythm with such a crude control method. Mind you, some of the high-ranking events are things like a two-hour endurance race (yes, in real time!) and could you imagine using a keyboard for that?!
The big let-down in the races is one imposed by the PS1's old-school hardware: only six cars compete in each race, including your own. One of the most enjoyable feelings in a circuit-racing game is that of being part of a 25-car pack jostling for position, but that's not possible here; consequently the tracks can feel a bit empty. The artificial intelligence isn't terribly good, and it's often too easy to keep a faster car behind you simply by weaving about a bit and using it as a movable barrier when doing rapid cornering, in a way that more realistic games might well punish you for. The AI cars do race each other, but they also tend either to stay bunched up or to let one car disappear into the distance; again, it's a tad predictable.
** Cars and tuning **
In Gran Turismo mode, you start off with a mere 10,000 credits, out of which you must buy your first car. To get more money, you'll need to compete in races, and to get the most you'll need to win them! So, it's off to the city to see about a new motor. Actually, an old motor, since you won't be able to afford a new car. For some reason, only Japanese firms offer used cars in this game, so that's where you'll have to start; however much you may be lusting after a TVR Griffith, one look at its price ticket will convince you that you're going to have to be doing a fair bit of winning before you can even consider showing up at that company's dealership!
GT2 has an enormous range of licensed cars, over 600 of them, although some are merely very slightly tweaked versions of others: there's not a great deal of difference between a '98 Subuaru Impreza and a '99 one. Even so, the variety on offer is one of the game's principal attractions and helps give it its wonderful longevity and replay value. Makes in the game vary from the humble - Daihatsu, Peugeot, Mini - to the very much less humble such as Aston Martin and the French supercar marque Venturi. There's no Ferrari, sadly but perhaps unsurprisingly, and no Porsche either - though you can get close to the latter with Ruf, a (real-life) German company who take unmarked Porsche bodyshells and build their own cars around them. One drawback is that there's no visible car damage, unlike in some other games such as TOCA 2.
Not all the cars in the game will be at the dealerships at any one time, so if you're looking out for something specific you'll need to keep checking back. You can also sell off your unwanted cars (at a big loss, naturally) and this is necessary if you want to complete the game, as only 100 can be stored in your garage at any one time, though you can effectively double this with careful use of memory cards. This is also where you'll need to come if you want to enter the various one-make series most of the manufacturers run, which is a bit of a trip into the unknown since they race on random circuits. You can't just cheat by backing out if you see a circuit you don't like, since the game treats that as a last place (with no bonus, either) and so it worsens the win percentage in your stats!
A car in showroom condition ("stock" as the Americans might say) is likely to struggle to win many races, and that's where tuning comes in. The range of upgrades on offer differs slightly between cars - you can't upgrade the turbo on a supercharged engine! - but it's always pretty big, and understanding what type of tuning suits different models is a vitally important skill to learn. Some are obvious power-boosters, such as fitting a "Sports ROM" (engine mod chip) while others, such as weight reduction, help a car's handling. When you get really good at the game there are upgrades marked "for professionals" which may make a car very much faster but at the expense of making it harder to drive. Again, it's no Grand Prix Legends, but it adds a good deal of depth for a game on a console like the PS1.
** Graphics and sound **
Remembering that the system they're being presented on is not far short of its 20th birthday now, Gran Turismo 2's graphics are really pretty decent, and as long as you don't use a ridiculously large screen the inevitable blockiness isn't really a problem. Some of the tracks are worse than others - the mountain Grindelwald circuit, for example, seems pretty easy on the eye. There is rather more pop-up than I'd have liked, and just occasionally that can be a slight distraction from the action (hey, that rhymes!) but again, you soon get used to it. The race replays work pretty well, with fast-moving action and smooth animation carrying the day. Menu design is a bit of a mish-mash, and it sometimes looks a bit thrown together (for example in the detailed car descriptions) but it's not too awful.
This is a console game, and so the whole thing is suffused (or infested, if you prefer) with constant music. This may be to your liking, of course, at least if you happen to enjoy the likes of Fat Boy Slim and The Cardigans. (Should you be interested, the former is a PAL exclusive; Americans got Garbage. With a capital G!) Personally I find music in a racing game a distraction, so always turn it off as soon as I can. The sound effects are okay: engine notes are hardly realistic, but are pretty well distinguishable from each other and don't grate too much during a race, at least in the shorter events. In the menus, it's just a bog-standard collection of beeps and bloops. So, not a world-beater on the audio front, but not a disaster either.
** Differences from the North American version **
I include this section because the majority of the guides you'll find online are American. There are differences between the two versions of the game, beyond the usual PAL/NTSC graphical tweaks. For example, we get speeds shown in km/h whereas the US sees them in mph; unfortunately this can't be changed (either way) in the game menu. There's also been some translation into British English, though this wasn't done all that assiduously: "tires" has indeed become "tyres", but you're still told about options to change a car's "muffler" rather than its exhaust. There's also one minor point within the PAL disc: if you select English as the game language, you'll get Vauxhalls, but if you choose another language they become Opels. Win the one-model series for both and you can in theory score over 100%!
** To get you started... **
I don't claim to be any sort of expert in GT2, but I've found that this isn't a bad way to begin: with your initial cash, buy a used Honda Prelude, and then spend the rest with a couple of mild tweaks in the tuning shop. (Many online guides suggest a used Toyota Supra instead, but I find the Prelude much more controllable.) That should allow you to win a Sunday Cup race or two to get a few thousand credits. A little more tuning should make the car fast enough to win the first event in the Historic Cup - yes, I know it's not really a historic car, but the game only checks for drivetrain and power levels, not authenticity! Win that, and not only do you get a cool 7,000 credits, you also get a prize car: a nice little green Mugen (the racing arm of Honda) sports car with pleasant handling even at the start.
Trick that car out a little and you should be able to win here almost every time - and you'll get another new Mugen each time, which can be sold for 3,000 credits, making your effective profit 10,000 credits per race. You can tune your original car (don't sell that one!) up a bit more, but watch you don't go over the horsepower limit for the Tahiti Road race. After a while you should have enough for a Subaru Impreza WRX, which - again with a modicum of tuning - will be fast enough to win the Impreza one-model round. Winning that earns you 10,000 credits, so a few victories there and you'll be opening up a lot more options. Make sure you have at least your B and A licences, and preferably the International C as well, and that will do you for quite some time. Good luck!
** Buying and verdict **
As I mentioned right at the beginning of this review, PS1 games are now amazingly cheap to buy, and while this particular title may cost a few pounds rather than a few pence thanks to its popularity and reputation, it's also incredibly common: the game sold well over three million copies in Europe alone. It's certainly a better game than the original Gran Turismo, not least because of its vast range of cars, something which the first PS2 game in the series (GT3, amazingly enough) couldn't remotely live up to. Of course the PS1's old-tech nature does limit it in places, most irritatingly in the small fields possible in the races, but there's such a lot to do in Gran Turismo 2 that it remains a supremely playable and enjoyable title, and is heartily recommended. Four and a half stars, rounded up to five for that massive car list.
Memory cards are not, in all fairness, the most exciting products the world has to offer. However, I've always had a bit of a soft spot for CompactFlash cards. This may be seen by some as further evidence of my deteriorating state of sanity, but actually I think there's method in my madness when it comes to these things. Unlike the SD (SDHC. SDXC, etc) cards that most camera users are more familiar with these days, CF cards have a really nice chunky feel to them that I think gives them a friendlier, more robust feel. This 32 MB card from SanDisk is getting on a bit now, but it still does a job in certain conditions.
This is a small-capacity card even for older digital cameras, and I probably wouldn't have bought one myself even at a knock-down price. Mine came inside an old Canon camera that I picked up second-hand, and of course any unexpected freebie is welcome when that happens. It looks just like every other SanDisk CF card of its vintage, with bold red and blue areas of colour on the front and a plain back face. As with most old SanDisks, in the gap between them there's a rather attractive rainbow swirl; even so many years on, I don't think the company has come up with a colour-scheme as pleasant on the eyes as this one.
For the purposes of this review, the card was tested in my "old faithful" Canon PowerShot A75, one of the last cameras in that series to use CF memory before they switched over to SD. As it's a three-megapixel digicam, a 32 MB card is really a bit tight for practical use: at the highest resolution settings a file takes up about 1.6 MB, meaning that you can store a mere 18 on this card. Even if you switch down from "superfine" to "fine" mode, the storage capacity doesn't rise much above the 30 mark. Still, the camera recognised the card without problems and except for the small amount of space you wouldn't know you weren't using a more recent 1 GB card.
This isn't a blisteringly rapid card, and with a camera like the Canon, which has one or two tricks up its sleeve, it can occasionally become slightly limiting. If you're using a more basic model, then this isn't likely to be a problem, and let's face it: a 32 MB card is not a desperately good choice for continuous-shooting or movie modes in the first place! You can buy one of these for the usual pittance of a couple of pounds on eBay, though they're becoming quite scarce now and prices are just beginning to rise. Personally I'd strongly recommend getting a 256 MB card instead, which in pence per byte terms is much better value. This 32 MB card is a historical curio, really.
== Introduction ==
The Kyocera Finecam L4v is an enormously frustrating and disappointing piece of kit to use, because what might have been an interesting and quite well made camera is let down enormously by one simple flaw: horrendously poor battery life. More of that later, but for a 2003 model the L4v was well specified, most notably in the shape of its 2.5-inch LCD screen. This isn't tiny even by today's standards, and was absolutely huge by those of eight years ago; Kyocera claimed at the time that the screen was the world's largest on a consumer digicam, and it wouldn't surprise me if they were right about that. If only that were what I'd thought about most while reviewing the thing...
== Looks and handling ==
I think this camera is fairly attractive. It has something of a "widescreen" feel to it that almost makes you think you should be holding it with two hands, although in fact one-handed operation (as long as you're right-handed...) is very easy; the feel of the unit in your grip reminds me of some Fujifilms of a similar vintage, such as the E500. The lens is a little off-centre, which doesn't look great, but at least it allows the rather small flash unit to be well away, thus reducing problems with shadows when taking flash pictures. Despite the large LCD, there's a small optical viewfinder in the extreme top-left corner (as you hold the camera).
The L4v's body is metal, which was a pleasant surprise, and although it's not terribly _thick_ metal it does mean that the camera as a whole feels well made and solid, with almost zero body creak of the sort that even quite posh plastic-bodied digicams usually display. My least favourite aspect of this camera's appearance is that when it's switched on a vertical stripe on the front panel lights up blue. This draws a lot of attention to the camera, which might be fun in certain social situations but which can be a right pain if you're shooting wildlife or having a go at street photography.
== Lens and optics ==
Here the Kyocera is resolutely ordinary, with a 3x optical zoom offering a 35 mm-equivalent viewing angle of 35 to 105 mm. The lens is fairly small, which as with most small zooms means that it isn't all that quiet, though the motor moves it in and out without any real fuss. Its acceptably bright (f/2,8) at the near end, but f/4.7 at full tele is nothing to write home about. Control of the zoom is by means of a rocker switch on the back: a very common arrangement, although I'm not massively keen on the rocker's notably small size. (This is actually a problem that affects the four-way pad and the other couple of control buttons, and one caused by the amount of back-panel space that big screen takes up.)
== Features and settings ==
It's probably best to think of the L4v as a "point and shoot plus" model. For example, as well as the usual automatic options it _is_ possible to select aperture - but only from two choices, one wide and one narrow. Similarly, the only control of shutter speed is via a special "long shutter" setting reached via the rather crude-looking but reasonably straightforward menu system. (Something else which reminded me of Fujifilms.) White balance including a fiddly manual setting, exposure compensation and ISO control are all on offer - though the last gives unusual options of 80, 160 and 320; and the highest ISO setting is not recommended unless you have no other choice. One feature worthy of note is on-camera sharpening level selection.
Autofocus is slow. Very slow, to be honest. If you haven't pre-focused by half-pressing the shutter, lag is _well_ over a second, which really isn't good enough even for a 2003 camera. I wouldn't bother too much with the L4v's macro mode, as it really struggles with anything closer than about 20 cm from the lens; not the best result even for a unit of this age. Movie mode is fairly feeble, but par for the course for a camera like this: videos can last up to 30 seconds at 320 x 240 pixels, or 120 seconds at the almost useless 160 x 120 resolution. Oddly, there's a specific option for recording _silent_ movies. The usual self-timer (two- or 10-second countdown) is present and correct, rounding off a mostly conventional set of extras. The one really interesting addition is a feature to resize a photo (eg for emailing) but keep the original too; this can occasionally come in quite handy.
== Photo quality ==
You can't expect the earth from a 4 mp camera, and indeed you don't get it; the Kyocera produces a mixed bag of results. I like the colours very much, especially those produced in daylight; they're clear and bright but don't overdo things so much they look unreal. Indoor photos aren't as good unless you take time to fiddle with white balance, not always possible for social shots. I was a bit disappointed with the contrast control, though: unless you make heavy use of exposure compensation, a _lot_ of shots in sunny conditions come out noticeably over-contrasty, thus losing a fair bit of detail. Sharpness is okay, but not brilliant, and as mentioned earlier the highest ISO setting (320) is pretty ugly at even modest print sizes.
== Consumables ==
And here everything not only falls apart, but collapses into such an almighty heap of junk that pretty much single-handed it drags the camera's overall score down from average to bad. Sad to say, the L4v has just about the worst battery life I have _ever_ encountered on a digital camera: if you can go 30 shots before the unit shuts down you're doing well, even with high-quality batteries. It's powered by two AA cells, but then so are innumerable other models which last vastly longer before giving up. Even allowing for the power needed to drive that big screen, this is a truly awful result, and one which on its own makes the Kyocera impossible to recommend.
There is a 3V DC socket into which you can plug a mains adaptor; a basic one from Maplin will work fine, and you'll enjoy the "luxury" of actually being able to change a few settings and study replayed photos on the camera screen without its switching off. The fact that the camera works all right with this attached makes it very clear that it's the battery circuitry that's at fault rather than any other sort of design flaw. Talking of which, the cover for the battery compartment is fiddly and annoying to use. As for memory, there's no internal storage and so you'll need a standard SD (or MMC) card to hold your pictures.
== Verdict ==
There are occasions in all review-writers' lives when they feel bad about awarding a product a poor rating but know deep down that they have no choice. Such a one is this: I would _like_ to have given the L4v three stars, since its big LCD, fair range of features and good build quality counter its lack of sparkle, hit-and-miss results and slightly awkward handling. However, I simply cannot ignore the appalling battery life. I can honestly say that I have never used a remotely comparable camera that ran out of juice so fast, and unfortunately it completely spoils the Kyocera as a viable tool. As such, there's only one rating I can fairly award: the lowest of all.
Being an old-fashioned sort of a person, I don't really get on with electric razors and prefer to use the traditional manual kind. For the most part I stick to Wilkinson's own brand of twin-blade razors, which give me a decent shave at a low price. However, the other day I found that my local branch had entirely sold out of them, and I wasn't particularly keen to pay a substantial premium for the next model up. So, I walked the short distance to the nearest supermarket and picked up a packet of Bic razors instead. These were marked as "sensitive" (so I'll try not to upset them here...) and came in a pack of 10 for a mere 99p.
The packet is... orange. So are the razors, though the head is in a contrasting white. This has of course been Bic's signature colour for decades, and it's certainly distinctive, but it also looks rather less than modern and upmarket these days. Admittedly nobody who is obsessed with the appearance and form of their personal grooming products (as they probably call them) is likely to be buying such basic razors in the first place, but even I have a marked preference for the calm navy blue of my usual Wilkinson's examples. However you look at these Bic razors, they're just not terribly attractive to behold.
More importantly, they're single-bladed razors, something that only really registered when I took the first one out of the (very plasticky) bag. Although I have little patience for the increasingly silly game of one-upmanship played by some of the large companies when it comes to blade count - I'm looking at you, Gilette - I do genuinely feel that twin-bladed razors give a nicer, closer and more comfortable shave than those with just one cutting edge. These Bics therefore seemed to hark back to an older time when it was almost thought to be "unmanly" for a gentleman to consider such things as whether his razor might feel *nice* on his skin.
All that said, if you're careful and appreciate that you need to apply a slightly different amount of pressure on your skin to that which you would with a multi-bladed razor - because the Bics naturally cut slightly less closely - you can still get reasonable results from these things. As their "sensitive" label suggests, those who suffer from lumps and bumps with other razors might give these a try; after all, at least some of those problems can be caused by *too* close a shave! However, I do think it's a bit of a shame, though entirely expected at this low price, that the head is fixed, as a swivel head that follows the contours of your face can be a real boon.
Assuming Wilkinson go back to selling my usual type of razor, I don't intend to switch to the Bic model for good. The twin-blade setup suits me more than the Bics' single blades do, and I also find them more comfortable in the hand than the terribly light Bics. However, they do work and for those who have skin irritation caused by too-close shaving (although a genuine possibility, this is not something razor manufacturers like to talk about!) they could be just what you're looking for. Just don't try to shave dry with one of these, as I did as a naïve young teenager. You'll only do it once, but my goodness you'll know about it!
This particular USB stick is one of the oldest I use on a regular basis, and even after several years of fairly regular use it's still going strong. It has to be said that "Verbatim Hi-Speed Store 'n' Go Professional" is a fairly ridiculous name to plaster all over a straightforward USB stick, so from here on in I intend to refer to it by a rather shorter name. I did briefly consider calling it Doris, but I decided that might cause some confusion. Because I already have one called Doris, you see. Anyway, the Store'n'Go Professional was once a prince among USB sticks, but nowadays history has passed it by and it's more like a rather moth-eaten marquess.
A 1 GB stick boasts just about big enough a capacity still to be genuinely useful. For a start, you can fit the entire contents of a data CD on it, so you can use it to store something like a Linux LiveCD .iso image, along with some bits and pieces such as documentation, and still have a bit of room to spare. It's also quite useful for photo storage, though in this case the space is *not* necessarily enough for a whole card. That said, my own Store'n'Go stick is filled with the most indescribable assortment of junk; looking at it now I can see several documents I doubt I've opened since about 2009. One of these days I'll do some proper electronic housekeeping... but then I've been saying that for a quarter of a century now!
This is a traditionally-shaped stick: it's quite square-edged, albeit with a (really slightly odd) finish that you'd swear was rubberised until you pressed a fingernail into it and discovered it was plastic after all. Mine is a cheerful bright red, which is always a good thing when you're as prone to losing little gadgets as I am, and next to the inevitable Verbatim logo there's a teeny tiny blue light which, er, lights up when data is being transferred. It's considerably more discreet than the blazing lights on a lot of sticks, but in truth I doubt very many people really care about that. After all, if you have a USB stick plugged into a PC, it's a bit hard to hide the fact that you might be transferring data!
Like almost every memory stick since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, this is a USB 2.0 device, which means that in any remotely modern operating system data is transferred at a reasonable lick in either direction. (It was advertised as "90x", but that's more or less meaningless ad-speak.) I've never had any problems with files getting corrupted, and in fact the Store'n'Go has been notably easy to use with the variety of OSes I've tried over the last few years: some sticks take quite some while to be recognised, especially in Linux, but this one appears ready to use within a few seconds, each and every time. That saves a great deal of annoyance and irritation, and is a major reason why I still use it even though I have plenty of newer sticks available.
When this stick was new, it came with some security and synchronisation software. Looking it up, I find it was called "V-Safe", and was a slightly more primitive version of the "U3" software that infests so many newer sticks, especially those from SanDisk. Since this software is very rarely any use in Linux, for me it just gets in the way and takes up space that could be used better in other ways, and so I tend to reformat the drive as soon as I can. That leaves me with around 970 MB of actual usable space, and that's a better deal for me. I can't say I miss "V-Safe" one jot, and in any case it would probably be too outdated to be much real protection any more.
There's only really one significant problem with the Store'n'Go stick, and that's that, because it has an old-fashioned separate cap rather than a slide or swivel mechanism for the connector, it's very easy to lose the blasted thing. I mislaid the cap of mine months and months ago, and have no idea where it is. Thankfully USB sticks are on the whole very robust little things, and although I don't subject the Verbatim to the very roughest conditions I don't treat it with kid gloves either, and there's been no problem. I should think most people will want a larger capacity stick these days, but if you happen to find one of these lying around it should still do a fair job.
** Background **
The arcade game Pac-Man probably needs no introduction, and even in the unlikely event that it does, it's pretty easy to explain: you rush around a maze eating dots (and sometimes fruit) and keeping out of the way of ghosts, apart from when you eat a power pill at which point you can chase them. Simple! Unsurprisingly given the original's enormous success, it spawned a number of sequels which enjoyed a greater or lesser degree of success. This 1999 cartridge for the colour Game Boy brings together versions of the first two follow-up games: Ms. Pac-Man from the dim and distant days of 1981 and Super Pac-Man which originally appeared a year later.
** Ms. Pac-Man **
It's really rather remarkable that Ms Pac-Man managed to gain as much success as it did, given how very similar its gameplay is to its progenitor. It's true that for an arcade game to have a female protagonist was a very unusual thing in the early 1980s, and the game itself is well designed and pretty enjoyable to play, but you don't really get a *lot* out of it over and above what you can take from the original. One of the changes that is significant is that, while in the original Pac-Man the ghosts' movement followed very definite patterns, here there's a certain amount of (pseudo-randomness) which means that the old expert's trick of "blindfold" Pac-Manning won't work here.
The graphics and sound are very much in the same mould as with the original Pac-Man, but I rather prefer them. In particular, the little intro jingle that plays just before the game proper begins is much nicer than its equivalent bleepy tune on the older game. The character design for Ms. Pac-Man herself is not exactly original - she gets a ribbon in her hair and a dimple on her cheek - but I suppose when you're writing a game in which the central personality is a circle with a segment chopped out of it, there isn't an enormous amount of room for manoeuvre! The old "wokka-wokka" sound of dot-eating has gone the other way, in that I think the earlier game's sounds had more tension and drama to them.
** Super Pac-Man **
The other game in the pack is slightly more of a mould-breaker - though "slightly" really is the operative word here! You still control a (male) Pac-Man, and you still wander around a maze wary of ghosts... but it's now fruits (apples on the first stage) which play the part of basic score-racker-upper and which have to be cleared. Scattered around the maze are little keys, and when you collect one of those entry is enabled to certain other parts of the screen - you need to collect all of them, since the level cannot otherwise be completed. As you continue through the game, you'll find an extra challenge provided by the fact that keys no longer always open *nearby* doors!
The traditional power pills are still in existence, and still allow Pac-Man to gobble up ghosts; but now there's a second sort of pellet too, which when eaten will turn your little yellow character into an outsized version of himself - the "Super Pac-Man" of the title! This makes him invulnerable to ghosts (though he can't actually eat them) and allows him to barge down doors without having found the requisite key. Another potential way to rack up points is the "bonus box" which sometimes appears close to the centre of the screen, containing rapidly changing symbols; how many points you get for eating it depends on just what those symbols are at the time.
Although it's a later and rather more complex game (as is also demonstrated by the existence of against-the-clock bonus levels here and there) I'm not really anything like as enamoured by Super Pac-Man as I am by Ms. Pac-Man. Especially on the Game Boy's small screen - which itself forces a slightly annoying scrolling viewport of the maze - the enormous sprite that is the "super" version of the character looks rather silly, almost as though there'd been a strange bug in the programming! Apparently when it came out a number of players found it rather confusing, and I'm not entirely surprised. It didn't do anything like as well in the arcades as the earlier (or many later) iterations of the franchise.
** Buying and verdict **
Both these games are brought to the Game Boy Color with considerable fidelity, allowing for the obvious limitations of the handheld's hardware. These are old enough titles that even the frankly feeble sound capabilities of the GBC don't really get in the way, while the aforementioned scrolling viewport undoubtedly *is* annoying but can't be helped without making the sprites so tiny as to be eye-straining anyway. It's not a terribly rare cartridge, though you might have to shell out £7 or so, and if you can see past the really rather hideous pink-dominated label (and box, if you have it) design then Ms. Pac-Man is a great game, Super Pac-Man perhaps rather less so. Three and a half stars, nudged down to three because Ms. Pac-Man alone will be cheaper and almost as much fun.
Diarrhoea is a well-known pain for children in spelling tests (especially given the predominance online of the American spelling "diarrhea") but at that age it also tends to be a bit of a joke. Actually, it remains that way well into adulthood for those fortunate enough not to have suffered it very often; diarrhoea is one of those conditions, like mumps, which are often seen as funny and fair game for feeble stand-up comedians. Anyone who has actually had to put up with "the runs", however, is unlikely to see it in quite the same light - and that's where Imodium comes in, as a tried and trusted brand in helping to combat this most unpleasant of common ailments. (Not for those young children, however: the minimum age for taking it is 12.)
It's important to appreciate that Imodium doesn't actually *cure* you, in the sense of getting rid of whatever underlying bugs are making your digestive system misbehave. For the most part all you can do about that is drink plenty of water (milk also seems to help for some people, me among them, but can make others worse, so beware!) and stick to a relatively plain diet while simply waiting for the illness to go away. However, while you *are* waiting, Imodium can help a good deal in combating the *symptoms*, in particular the awful feeling of needing to rush to the toilet at very little notice and (sometimes) only a few minutes since the last time. In short, it can allow you not to spend an entire day not daring to be more than a sprint from the nearest loo.
There is a newer, more powerful version of Imodium called (with a singular lack of imagination) Imodium Plus, but here I'm reviewing the traditional form - this is now branded "Imodium Original". For about £2 to £3 you get a standard cardboard carton containing six tablets, which is the maximum dose for 24 hours. You take two in the first instance, followed by (to quote from the back of the box) "one after every further loose bowel movement". Obviously, if your symptoms become really severe, or if they go on for a long time, then you should cease self-medicating and get in touch with a doctor, or at least consult your pharmacist, as occasionally digestive problems can be caused by quite severe underlying illnesses.
The tablets are very small capsules, which are extremely easy to swallow along with a glug of water; this is something very welcome when you're not really in the mood to take in anything at all. You won't notice any difference instantly, but it's actually surprising just how quickly Imodium does work - for example, the last time I took it, within a few minutes I felt able to go about reasonably normal shopping again. You get a few hours' relief with these things - somewhere around six to eight, I've found, though other people have reported as much as 12 hours so you might be lucky. You still may find yourself feeling tired and run-down, and of course if your diarrhoea *is* caused by some long-term underlying condition then there's no guarantee that you'll actually feel any better in yourself.
Even so, I would certainly recommend that anybody with any sort of predisposition to bouts of diarrhoea, provided of course that their doctor hasn't told them otherwise, take a packet of Imodium with them in a suitably discreet place (such as in the side pocket of a shoulder bag) as if nothing else the simple piece of mind brought on by the knowledge that they are there if needed can have a calming effect. In short: don't expect Imodium to work miracles and make your digestive system run on all cylinders immediately - but its ability to give you, and your body, a bit of a break for even a short while makes it a pill not to be underestimated.
** ...the dawn is surely coming **
The Amber Spyglass is the third and final volume of Philip Pullman's remarkable His Dark Materials trilogy. For me this book marks a return to form after the merely excellent middle volume, The Subtle Knife, and although it is not without its little flaws here and there it makes a very meaty and generally deeply satisfying conclusion to the series. Those who have read the first two books and are still wondering just why His Dark Materials is so hated in certain religious quarters will without a doubt find the answers here: although there are nasty priests and fallen angels, that's not the half of it. In fact, without trying to spoil things for newcomers, it's reasonable to say that what the increasingly complex Mrs Coulter (surely one of the best female characters of recent years, and mesmerising here) would doubtless describe as "heresy" reaches right to the heart of things.
This book moves between universes more than either of the previous two, and it's a tribute to Pullman's wonderful powers of description that you very rarely get any more disorientated than do the characters themselves. That qualification is an important one, however, as Lyra and Will are not always entirely in control of their journeys, despite the latter's now fairly assured use of the subtle knife. In particular, a long sequence set in "the world of the dead" brings in some extremely strong emotions, and contains one particular chapter involving Lyra that some reviewers have opined - with reason - that you never really recover from reading. It's a shocking, devastating sequence, and yet it makes perfect sense from the point of view of what has gone on before. That cold logic may well be what makes it quite as bad as it is.
** Dramatis personae **
Several important new characters are introduced in this book, not least the Gallivespians, pint-sized spies from (yet) another world who get about on dragonflies they've bred themselves. This sort of thing would come across as a ridiculous flight of fancy in many novels, but Pullman not only gets away with it but makes the Gallivespians' existence of immense importance to the plot, and the fates of their characters of great interest to the reader. Angels, too, although encountered in a minor way in The Subtle Knife, are of far more significance in this final book; it's more than likely that at least some of the problems His Dark Materials had with some of the more reactionary American churches were down to the way Pullman portrays the relationships between them as well as between angels and human beings.
Naturally, there are plenty of continuing characters too, and these are handled with great skill. I've already mentioned Mrs Coulter - if you thought you knew how you felt about her, don't get too comfortable with that - and Lord Asriel will return in style too. Iorek Byrnison makes a reappearance, though not for as long as I suspect a lot of Northern Lights fans will have liked, and even some people you thought you'd seen the last of do in fact return. As for the two main protagonists: I felt that The Subtle Knife showed Will as slightly too much the old-fashioned square-jawed young hero, but although there's still a bit of this here it's rather more nuanced, and I think the book is the better for it. Lyra remains to my mind a more interesting and complex character than Will, and so I'm pleased that she gets more "screen time" in this book, starring in the novel's most memorable and heart-wrenching scene.
** Plot (lots) and problems (few) **
You may have noticed that I haven't yet actually said a great deal about the plot of The Amber Spyglass. That's partly for the usual reason - avoiding too many spoilers - but it's also because the plot is extremely difficult to summarise in a paragraph or two without its coming across as banal and boring, neither of which is the case. This is much less of a conventional adventure tale than Northern Lights or even The Subtle Knife, and whole chapters are often given over to quite slow-moving, descriptive passages; this is especially the case in those parts dealing with the our-world physicist Mary Malone and her encounters with the mysterious and (as we come to realise) remarkable other-world animals known as mulefa. Because of this, the book's 500-plus page length seems entirely reasonable, with very few sections that feel like padding.
Slightly disappointingly, I think that the ending of The Amber Spyglass is its least successful part, and just occasionally you do get the feeling that Pullman is getting a tad didactic about religion. I don't want to imply that it turns into some sort of atheistic tract, because that's very far from being the case, but there is just the odd occasion when a character seems to be uttering something of a pre-prepared speech on the author's behalf. This really is a very small proportion of the book, however, so don't worry that it's going to ruin the exquisitely building tension. I do like that certain things are left unexplained and unresolved, in the way that real life works, and I also felt that the very, very ending was beautifully written, offering a conclusion that - once again - makes perfect sense in the context of the tale but that you probably won't see coming. I'll confine myself to saying that it's neither a conventional "happy ever after" ending nor a horrible anticlimax.
** Buying and verdict **
The Amber Spyglass can be picked up from Amazon for around the £5 mark in a variety of editions; my favourite is the 2007 Scholastic paperback with its gorgeous feline cover art as well as an Appendix with some extra material (which should be left until you've read the story itself). There's absolutely no point in reading this book unless you've read (and enjoyed) the previous two, as it assumes far more background knowledge than could possibly be picked up from all its 38 chapters put together. However, I feel fairly confident that if you have read the other two books, this is a hugely worthwhile conclusion to the trilogy. It's not quite as good as Northern Lights, which was close to perfect, but it's still a fantastically written story, the work of a truly gifted storyteller. Easily worthy of five stars.
[Thanks to Al Stewart for the title!]
There we are, you see? Even I, high prince of the most appalling old electronic trash, can sometimes turn my attention to products that are something approaching modern, such as this 2 GB SD memory card from Kodak. Curiously enough you don't see a whole lot of Kodak memory cards around; as with their compact digital cameras, they've rather let themselves fall behind in this marketplace and so there are at least half a dozen names - the likes of SanDisk and Kingston - who probably have a higher recognition factor than do Kodak themselves, something the company really ought to be concerned about.
There's rarely a great deal to be said about a memory card's looks, but in this case at least the design is bright and colourful. Admittedly that means precisely nothing once it's inside your camera, but at least if - when, in my case - one slips out of your hand and falls into long grass you'll have a better than even chance of ever finding it again! The "2 GB" marker is acceptably prominent, though personally I would have preferred it to have been just a little bit larger. Kodak trumpet something called "Digital Assurance" on the front as well, though what that actually means is anybody's guess, or at least that of somebody who (unlike me) bought their card brand new in a sealed packet.
This is not a high-speed card, and so it's not suitable for more complex or upmarket cameras; it can also become a bit annoying if you're using a high-resolution digicam with large file sizes, and naturally it's of very little use for continuous/burst mode shooting. If that's what you're after, then you should be looking at Kodak's "High Performance" range, which offer considerably more speed. Personally I would be loath to use this card in my Canon PowerShot A710, but I would be perfectly happy to insert it into a simpler, more basic model used only on automatic - or at least near-auto - mode.
As with most two-gig SD cards, the Kodak is not expensive to buy, and £4 or so should be enough to get you one, though you're unlikely to receive it in its original packaging for that price. In all honesty most bog-standard modern SD cards are much of a muchness, and so it's hard to say whether or not the Kodak is better or worse than the equivalent SanDisk item. Really, then, it comes down to pure consumer preference: if you've had good experiences with Kodak products then you'll probably be reassured by using this. If not, you'll want to go elsewhere. Three stars because this really is a card that's... okay. Not great; not awful; just... okay.
== Introduction ==
The Kodak EasyShare CX7430 digital compact camera, as I'm sure nobody on Earth actually calls it, is a four-megapixel model dating back to 2004, a time when the digital photography revolution was really gathering pace and it was no longer only the geekiest of the geeky who acquired one. Strangely for the company that pioneered amateur snapshot photography, Kodak really struggled for some time in this particular marketplace, and a startling number of their compacts were no more than adequate. This model is one such: it's a nicely thought out digicam in some ways, but terribly frustrating in others.
== Looks and handling ==
The CX7430 is certainly no beauty contest winner. Mostly that's because of the extremely offset lens, so far over to the left (as you hold the unit) that its surround actually protrudes very slightly from the main casing. Instead it's the flash that's top-centrally placed, while on the other side is a largish, ridged grip of translucent plastic - a nice idea, but I find it badly positioned for one-handed shooting, being just that little bit too near the edge. The rear plate isn't beautiful either, with the screen in the middle and a rather fussy design of buttons and switches all around it. "Designed by committee" is how I'd describe its looks.
You would not mistake this for a professional digital camera in a month of Sundays. The word that screams out at you as you handle it is "plastic", and it really does feel plasticky all over. Not toy-like, admittedly - there's reassuringly little body flex and creaking, and the casing itself seems to be reasonably strong - but if you compare it to a more upmarket contemporary such as the Canon PowerShot A75, also plastic-bodied but considerably posher, you're left in absolutely no doubt that the Kodak is not for those consumers for whom part of the joy of owning an electronic appliance is in its beautiful feel in the hand.
== Optics and screen ==
More expensive Kodaks of the day boasted Schneider-Kreuznach lenses, but the mainstream line of which this model was part had to make do with Kodak's own Retinar glass. This is a pretty standard 3x optical zoom unit, with an equivalent focal length of 34 to 102 mm, as close to average as makes no practical difference, and an autofocus system that works reasonably reliably (in decent light) but not all that quickly. The lens is rather small, and when extended with a slightly irritating whining, the barrel seems a little bit flimsy - being so close to the edge makes it rather vulnerable to knocks.
Around the back, the LCD screen takes pride of place. It's a 1.6-inch unit, marginally larger than the 1.5-inchers that were still current in 2004 but not so that you'd notice. If anything it seems quite small surrounded as it is by all those buttons, not to mention an annoying and slightly reflective screen surround that gave Kodak the opportunity to plaster their brand over yet another surface. The screen itself is underwhelming in quality terms: while you should be able to get a rough idea of what you're aiming at, in anything less than excellent daylight it quickly becomes unpleasantly grainy.
== Features and settings ==
The Kodak has a fair selection of things to play with, but they're not always made terribly easy to get at. The simplest options to change concern scene modes, which can be set directly via the mode dial on top of the camera. You only get half a dozen of these, covering the absolute basics such as portrait and macro, but it's certainly quicker than rummaging about in the camera's menus. Up here is also where you can select movie mode, which is a slightly unusual one: you can record in full VGA (640 x 480) which is nice, but the frame rate is a bizarre 13 fps, which is less so.
Kodak were clearly determined to make this camera easy to use, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions and the menu system on the CX7430 can get very frustrating. Its simple, bright, almost Fisher-Price appearance means an unnecessary amount of button-bashing to get to the option you want. If you can put up with that, there's a good selection of settings, some of which you wouldn't expect on a camera this old, such as ISO 800. Admittedly you can only use this in the worst quality setting (helpfully called "Good"!) and admittedly it gives truly dire results, but it _is_ there.
Exposure compensation and white balance settings are of course present and correct, though the former is disappointingly only offered in half-stop steps rather than the usual third-stop. You can choose from three metering options, two styles of focusing, date stamping and even a rather nice "long exposure" mode which - with the obligatory tripod - will allow you to capture scenes at up to 16 seconds' exposure. This being an EasyShare, there's also the usual red "share" button should you wish to mark photos for printing or email - not that I've ever done this, since I much prefer to transfer pictures with a card reader and then use the extra power and flexibility of the PC to process them.
== Photo quality ==
A lot of Kodak compacts, especially the older ones, stand out from the crowd of budget digicams by _not_ following the herd into giving colours a super-saturated look. It may be that Kodak's long experience of producing film has a bearing on this, but then Fujifilm has the same experience and _does_ saturate everything. Whatever the reason, the output from the CX7430 is noticeably closer to what you'd see in a traditional print than you get from most similar digicams. Whether you like that or not is a matter of personal taste, and I think it works better for some subjects (eg wildlife) than for others (eg portraits).
Obviously the limited resolution of this cameras holds it back somewhat when it comes to image sharpness, but for a 4 mp unit I don't think it does too badly. You wouldn't want to blow up its photos to poster size, but for postcard-sized printouts you ought to be reasonably satisfied, at least for holiday snapshots and the like. Perhaps surprisingly given the Kodak's small lens, it's not too bad in low light, and is by no means the laggard in its class. That goes for performance too, by the way: it's _much_ faster to start up than many of its contemporaries, and that makes it feel rather more modern than some 2004 digicams.
== Consumables ==
The Kodak has a 16 MB internal memory, but that's for emergencies only. It takes ordinary SD memory cards in capacities up to 2 GB, though it can't support the more modern SDHC and SDXC types. It can also accept the ancient MMC format in the somewhat unlikely event that you still have any of those cards lying around. As with a lot of older cameras, the card compartment is separate from the battery one, being accessed from the right-hand side as you hold the unit. I like this separation, as it means you can change cards quickly and easily without running the risk of the batteries falling out, but unfortunately it's very rare nowadays; this was a _welcome_ aspect of the CX7430's age!
Talking of batteries, this digicam uses two ordinary AA batteries; as usual, the use of NiMH rechargeables is highly recommended. With reasonably high-capacity cells you can get a fair bit of life out of the little Kodak - one set should see you through a reasonably relaxed day out, but you'll probably want two if you're really going for the burn, so to speak. Watch the battery compartment cover - it slides out lengthways, but then actually _opens_ sideways, which can be a bit of a shock the first time it happens! It also has quite a strong spring, so needs a little more force than you might expect to close it.
== Buying and verdict ==
The pace of change in the digital camera market is vividly illustrated by the fact that when the CX7430 first appeared seven years ago, it cost more than £200. Mine cost me £9.95, and that was a couple of years ago now, though it was a "sold as seen" auction. Prices haven't changed a great deal since then, and the Kodak name ensures that there's still a steady stream of them appearing - and selling - on eBay. The Kodak CX7430 is no longer a camera I could recommend as your one and only digicam, but as a backup, perhaps to keep in the car glovebox, you could do worse. Better than some Kodak compacts of its day, and worthy of a solid three stars.
Although a lot of powerful interests are forever trying to convince us that the future of data storage lies online - in "the cloud" as it's known these days, though webmail has been doing it since long before that term was invented - I've always rather preferred to keep the really important things stored locally. This goes right back to the days of floppy disks, unwieldy and unreliable as they are by modern standards, and continued through the brief period when CD storage was the norm into the present day where USB sticks are ubiquitous. (USBiquitous, perhaps!)
SanDisk have become the pre-eminent name in data storage and held that title for some years now. Their products are not always the best, and are rarely the cheapest, but absolutely crucially for an area like this they very rarely actually let anybody down. I feel I can rely on the SanDisk name, and that's why a lot of the really faintly ridiculous number of USB sticks I've acquired over the years have been from them, including this Cruzer Micro 2 GB stick. Mine came as part of a pack of three in different colours (red, dark blue and white) but the shade makes no difference to how they operate. For what it's worth, I used the white one for this review.
The "Micro" part of the stick's name is fairly well justified. When this line came on to the market a couple of years ago these things really did seem tiny; the seemingly relentless pace of miniaturisation even in the intervening period has meant that nowadays the Cruzer sticks are just small. To be honest I'm glad they're not any smaller, since I find the *really* small accessories (MicroSD cards, for example) to be unpleasantly fiddly. In any case, the minimum size is governed by the form factor of the USB connector itself, which on these sticks is on a nifty slide mechanism allowing you to retract the connector fully - handy when carrying one around in a pocket.
SanDisk unfortunately decided to include the U3 software on this stick. I say "unfortunately" because I've never found it more than the most almighty pain the neck. The idea of U3 is to allow users to make their applications portable between different systems, and to this end the stick is formatted to include a small partition on which U3 sits - so that if you wipe the main file area, the U3 program is untouched. However, I find the whole thing fiddly to set up, and even though the space used up is small it still irritates me slightly that a stick advertised as a two-gig unit actually is not. As for the portability aspect, I find the straightforward, prepackaged approach of the Portable Apps website to be more use - so I tend to use a partition editor to wipe out U3 altogether and use the whole stick for my data.
On that score, the Cruzer Micro does its job very nicely. It's a USB 2.0 device as you'd expect, so files whizz back and forth between stick and PC at a reasonable rate of knots. You can tell when the Micro is properly connected because a pleasant (if slightly bright for my taste) orange glow appears along its side, which flashes when data is being transferred. Just occasionally I find the stick retracting as I plug it in, but this problem is easily enough addressed by keeping one finger pressed against the slider as you insert the connector into its socket. There's a small (and rather flimsy-looking) ring at the non-business end of the stick to which you can attach a lanyard.
These days, even a 2 GB memory stick is right at the bottom end of what you will find in the shops, and perhaps even bordering on the obsolete as far as manufacturers and retailers go. However, it's certainly still capacious enough to be of practical use, and even these days you can fit a goodly number of (for example) digital photos or MP3 music tracks into a space of that size. If you can find one for a fiver or so - or, better still, the three-pack for around the £10-12 mark - then the SanDisk Cruzer Micro could still make some sense. It's not the most thrilling of accessories, but it is very unlikely to fail catastrophically on you, and where data is concerned that reliability is everything.
Now then... there's a little tale behind this review, which I'll keep short partly because I want to get on to the product itself, but mostly because it's very boring. The tale that is, not the product. Though come to think of it... anyway, I remember looking at this very card many, many years ago on some long-defunct website and wondering whether 4 MB was really likely to be enough for a digital camera. I felt, as anybody might, that you'd be bound to need at least, ooh, 16 MB. And lo, it came to pass that I was proved right. Well, sort of. Now we're in the world of the 16 *GB* memory card, anything not capable of storing the names and addresses of every electron on the planet is probably considered old hat. I wouldn't know; my area is the stuff that really *is* old hat. Or at least old card. Like this thing.
Anyway, one of these 4 MB Viking CompactFlash cards turned up inside an ancient (and, as it turned out much to my annoyance, broken) camera I bought the other week. I don't think I'd even held a four-meg card in my hand before, so this was actually quite an exciting find. (I bet you're glad you're only meeting me electronically...) I thought I'd better give it a whirl, so I dug out a suitably ancient digital camera - a Canon PowerShot A10, of a mighty 1.2 megapixels resolution - and the first thing to report is that yes, the card fitted well enough. Mind you, it seemed somehow thicker and less (if I dare use this word) sleek than more modern CompactFlash cards, though comparing by eye didn't really reveal any difference.
The A10's photos, at decent quality settings, tend to take up somewhere in the 300-400 KB range. That means that the Viking card can store a rather less than impressive 10-12 photos. Of course, you could reduce the quality, but with a 1.3-mp camera you need everything you can get! As you'd further expect, this card is no speed demon. Whether the image of a ferocious medieval warrior is supposed to frighten the electronics into working faster is something I confess I had not previously considered... but if it's true, it doesn't work. It almost certainly won't be a problem, since only continuous mode really calls for a fast card with old cameras, and with only a dozen photos to a card you're unlikely to be making many of those!
I honestly have no idea how much this card costs on the second-hand market; as I say, mine came with a camera (which being bust is even less use than the card!) and I struggle to see why anybody would want one except as a historical curiosity. In other words, if you don't know why you'd want a four-meg CF card, I think there's a fairly high probability that you don't. Actually, I'd venture that 99% of the people reading this fall into that category, 0.99% of the rest would only be interested for the oddity value, and the remaining 0.01% are me. I'm going to keep mine, though heaven knows what for. To give to a clay-pigeon club, perhaps. In short: this card works, and works unfussily, but it still isn't of much - if any - practical use. Hence, one star.