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eilidhcatriona

eilidhcatriona
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Member since: 17.05.2009

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      12.02.2014 11:04
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      An enjoyable crime novel set in late 19th century Paris

      Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi is a murder mystery/detective novel set in Paris in 1899, a time of racial tensions with the Dreyfus affair at its height, and the city preparing for the universal exhibition and the new century. James Norton, a Harvard law professor, arrives in Paris, sent by his mother to bring back his brother, Raf, and sister Ellie. Yet what is already likely to be difficult is complicated when Raf's Jewish lover, Olympe, is found dead in the Seine. James is plunged into the investigation, trying to discover what happened to this captivating woman, and to clear his brothers name when the police turn to him. While the bare outline of the story could be that of hundreds of crime novesl, the setting of Paris Requiem is what makes it different. Not the fact that it is set in Paris, but the Paris of 1899, a different world. So much of it is recognisable as what we know of Paris today - the beautiful architecture along with incidents such as the police chief who refuses to even consider a discussion on the developments in the case until he has had lunch - yet so much is foreign, such as the murky underworld of prostitution and the discrimination against the Jewish population. It is at once familiar and different. James is a good lead character for this novel, a straightforward American professor sent to sort out his wayward siblings. Given the high spiritedness of other characters, and the vagaries of the city, this solid man is exactly what is needed in a narrator. He keeps the story on course, and ensures that the reader is able to follow developments - which would be much harder if a character like Raf were the lead, as he is always shooting off on madcap hunches. The characters are one of the issues I had with Paris Requiem. The main characters are easy to keep straight, but the peripheral characters, particularly those who crop up in the investigation such as several doctors, are much harder. They seem to blend together very easily, despite not having similar names. Several times I found myself trying to remember who a character was, especially the various doctors. Another negative was that I felt the novel went on for too long. There was never really any sections of what you might call "filler", and I did enjoy it, but it wasn't until later in the novel that I really found it gripping. Coming in at just over 500 pages in paperback, I'm sure the same story could have been told just as effectively, and without losing any of the evocative feel of Paris, with 100 pages less. Despite these negatives, Paris Requiem is an exciting and atmospheric read, with Paris of 1899 being as much a character in the story as the people. Appignanesi may have gone on for a bit long, but she doesn't pad out her novel with unnecessary passages, and Paris Requiem is a novel which should appeal to fans of crime fiction as well as those of historical fiction.

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      10.02.2014 17:52
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      A great second novel in the series

      Last year, my attention was grabbed by a novel called Night School by C.J. Daugherty, the first in a series of the same name. However because I read so much, by the time the sequel was published, I'd half forgotten about it. I have recently rectified that and read book two, Legacy - and quickly followed it by book three. Legacy picks up shortly after Night School left off. In Night School, our protagonist Allie is sent to the mysterious Cimmeria Academy after regular expulsions and arrests. All is not as it seems though, and she struggles to find out what is going on. In Legacy, Allie is back at Cimmeria and beginning to get answers about her place in the school and everything that is going on - but the danger is increasing and their enemies are moving against them. Being set in a school, this is a young adult novel, but it is one of those which I think can appeal to readers of all ages. Despite the majority of the characters being sixteen and seventeen year olds, there is very little annoying teen-speak and slang - personally I think this shows that Daugherty respects her readers and doesn't feel the need to crowbar in references to music or celebrities just for the sake of it. The fact that as an adult reader I don't find the novel too childish also shows respect for her readers; she doesn't talk down to them and writes in a mature style. I found Night School to be gripping and tense, and Legacy is no different in that respect. What is different is that we get the answers which Allie (and us readers) craved in Night School - but as they open up yet more questions, the tension is not lost. Allie joins Night School itself, which gives an insight into what was a very mysterious group in the first novel. I was slightly disappointed by this - it was so unknown and possibly creepy in the first novel, that it's a bit of an anticlimax to find out what's really going on there. Allie is a good lead character. Despite being only sixteen, she's been through the mill a bit and is no stranger to pain and loss. I was immediately on her side in Night School and this continued in Legacy. This time though, I felt it was more obvious as to which side was the "good" side, and so I was urging Allie to make the right choices. Perhaps the one element of this novel which shows up it's intended audience is that Allie and her friends make the occasional comment about understanding things more than the adults, or thinking they know better. This is such a typical teenage view, and is sure to appeal to teen readers. Yet what is interesting is that they're not always right - and they're shown up to be wrong. This appealed to me as an adult, because the teenagers plans were usually a bit harebrained and I was sure the adults were already on it - and lo and behold, they were. I was just as hooked on Legacy as I was on Night School, perhaps more so, and as soon as I finished it I downloaded Fracture, book three in the series. Now I've got quite a wait until book four comes out, but as I'm well and truly hooked on the story of Allie and Cimmeria, there's no danger I'll forget about it again.

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        06.02.2014 13:02
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        A good desktop printer

        About a year ago, I convinced my manager that I needed to buy a small desktop printer to take with me to offsite conferences that I organise - having managed to break two lent to me by the venue during a recent conference, I wanted something reliable which I knew how to work. I spent some time browsing our office supplies catalogue trying to decide what to get. I wanted a good quality printer, easy to set up and use, with copier and scanner functions, able to print photos (I didn't need it but I thought I might as well have that option) and not too large or heavy. I also didn't want a horribly ugly boxy looking thing, which is where the Canon Pixma range had the edge - they're fairly attractive things as far as printers go, so I chose the MG5450 which was in the price range I was looking at (under £100) and which seemed to be getting good reviews. Set up wasn't as easy as I'd hoped, but frankly I think it's just me. I always have issues with setting up printers, and this is further hampered by my work's IT security procedures which mean my laptop gets upset when I try to install something new. It seemed to take me ages to get the printer set up first time round - which fortunately I did when still in the office, rather than waiting until I actually needed to use the printer offsite. Once the printer was set up and my laptop had got over it's tantrum, reconnecting the printer every time I need to use it has been incredibly straightforward - I literally just connect it to my laptop by USB cable, plug in the printers power, and we're off. Now that my laptop knows the printer, it's fine. So, the printer. The first time I used it, I noticed the speed of printing. Of course it's slower than the massive multifunction printer we have in the office, but for an inkjet printer I thought the MG5450 was really quite nippy. You don't have to wait ages for a document to print - but if you're printing a sheet which is solid print, i.e. a powerpoint slide with a full background, that does take a bit longer. Print quality is also very good. I can tell that my printouts come from an inkjet instead of the laser multifunction one that I'm used to, but printing is clear, and doesn't smudge. The ink on paper feels ever so slightly damp when it first comes out of the printer, but I've not managed to smudge anything yet. The printer is also fairly quiet when printing. I find using the printer to be very easy on the whole. I just send the document to be printed to the printer, and out it comes. However, when I step away from straightforward printing, it gets a little more tricky. I only recently discovered how to do double sided printing, a year after purchasing the printer. Copying is easy, but scanning has caused me a lot of trouble. I have tried so many times to scan something by pushing buttons on the printer, but it just never works, it never pops up on my computer. Some time ago I figured out how to do it - and then promptly forgot. So when our laser multifunction was broken for about a week recently, I was using this little printer and had to spend ages figuring out how to scan - eventually I remembered that I needed to control the scanning from my computer, not from the printer. I still haven't figured out how to scan to PDF though - this seems to be an option on the little screen on the printer, but not an option when starting the scan from my computer. I have printed some photos on the MG5450, and it is very good quality - I was certainly happy with the results, although it might not satisfy serious photographers. Ink usage is something I've found hard to track. Until recently I was only using the printer for a few days every month or two, and during that time I wasn't generally using it heavily. Yet I remember being surprised I had to change one of the ink cartridges during the first conference I used the printer at. As I mentioned previously, recently I was using this printer as the main office printer, which meant more regular use, and higher levels of use. Over the course of about a week and a half, I had to change three of the five ink cartridges, two colours and the black toner thingie - but the cartridges weren't fresh at the start of that period, they had been used previously. So I'm not sure what the rate of consumption is - I think in honesty that it is fairly high, but that will really depend on your use. If you were to use this like I did recently as the main printer in an office, you'd find you were going through ink at an awful rate. If this were your home printer and it was only getting used once or twice a week, ink would last quite a while. The ink seems to me to be reasonably priced - you can buy multipacks of the colours for about £35, and the black toner is about £12. The Canon Pixma MG5450 is a really decent little printer for what I need it for - it has always run smoothly, print quality is good, and it works quite quickly. I've been very pleased with it - although it can't replace the large multifunction device we have in the office, I've left the Canon set up on my desk for odd bits and pieces of printing. The only trouble I've had with it is scanning, and there is the possibility that that trouble would disappear if I read the instruction booklet...

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        04.02.2014 10:46
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        A good quality marker pen

        I have a black Sharpie Permanent Marker which I'm pretty sure was a freebie from some office supplies tradeshow or other, because I certainly don't remember buying it. The pen is matte silver metal with a black plastic lid, and is quite wide, about 1.5cm diameter. I'm not generally a fan of marker pens. They're often messy, almost always smelly, and write through the paper. But having one around my desk is necessary for when I need to address parcels, cross out barcodes or addresses on boxes that I'm reusing, or making temporary notices for the office. The Sharpie Permanent Marker is pretty good as marker pens go. The matte surface makes it nice to hold, and it doesn't easily slip out of my grip. It's not too wide, and is easy to write with - it doesn't require any extra pressure to write clearly. The ink is a good dark black - it doesn't come out a bit faint or grey, but properly black. I don't need to go over my writing a second time to make it clear. The tip of the pen is wide enough to write clearly if you're writing large letters, but it can also cope with quite small writing without making it indecipherable. There are, however a few small issues with the Sharpie Permanent Marker. Firstly, the most obvious - it smells. There are no doubt people out there who like marker pen fumes while at their desks, but I'm not one of them (at my desk or anywhere else for that matter). Frankly the smell of a marker pen makes me feel a little bit queasy. I've definitely used much worse than the Sharpie one, when I've only had to take the lid off the pen to feel ill, but with the Sharpie pen I can manage to write a full address before starting to want to put the lid on. And on the subject of the lid, it's very easy to accidentally leave the lid not properly on the pen. When you put the lid on, it needs a good effort to get it to click closed, and because it needs more effort than most pens, it's easy to think that you've got the lid on properly when actually you haven't. Saying that however, I've done this several times and the pen hasn't dried out at all. The final negative is one which I find with every marker pen I use - if you use it on regular paper, it stains through the paper and onto whatever is underneath. If it's more paper, it's annoying but not a disaster. If it's your desk and you've been writing a really grumpy notice asking people to stop helping themselves to the catered lunch you ordered for a meeting, it's a bit more of a problem if said grumpy message then stains itself onto your desk. Most of this review has turned out to be negative points, but the smell and staining through paper issues are ones which I've had with every marker pen I've used, so I'm inclined to discount them and treat those as standard negatives of the pen type. The lid issue is specific to this pen, and is an irritation rather than a real problem. Overall I'd say the Sharpie Permanent Marker is a decent marker pen. My pen was a freebie, but these are available in packs of 12 for around £9 online.

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      • Rapesco 827 Punch / Homeware / 36 Readings / 36 Ratings
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        03.02.2014 11:46
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        It makes holes in things, therefore it does its job

        When yet another piece of cheap office equipment let me down, I turned to my trusty stationery catalogue to find another. There's only so far you can go with saving money - my manager praises my thriftiness but even I can recognise when spending more than a couple of quid on a hole punch might be a sensible idea. I was faced with quite the array of hole punches to choose from. I was just looking for something that could handle a decent amount of paper at a time, and not die with a sad squeak when I got lazy and tried to punch an entire contract in one go. I ended up choosing the Rapesco Two Hole Punch - two holes were all I needed, it looked fairly sturdy, claimed to be able to punch 30 pages at once, and at around £7 with corporate discount, wasn't too expensive for what it is. My hole punch is black, which is very dull. Having checked the stationery catalogue to check the model number (827), I can see it also comes in silver. I have no idea why I didn't order the silver one, at least it would be nicer than boring black; the snazzy red one in the picture here doesn't seem to be available from my supplier. Anyway, aesthetics aren't really the reason you choose a hole punch. I wouldn't say I'm a heavy user of hole punches, but I use it regularly, particularly during my conference season of winter and spring when I file anything I can lay my hands on in case I need it for the inevitable shouting-at-a-venue session which will come later (the other day I had a panic when I couldn't find my petty cash records; they turned up in one of the conference files). So during this time, when I'm rushed off my feet, I don't want to muck about punching documents in small sections, I just want to punch something and be done. In more ways than is relevant to this review, but we're not here to talk about my violent tendencies. The Rapesco Two Hole Punch needed to do its job, and do it quickly. Most documents that I need to hole punch don't test the limits of this hole punch, at under ten pages. For smaller documents, the hole punch works quickly, smoothly and with very little effort on my part. Once you get past about fifteen pages, you need to exert a bit more pressure on the punch, and it might take a moment longer, but it will still get the job done. Thirty pages is about the limit of this punch - it's hard work with the more pages you have, but more to the point, any more simply wouldn't fit into the punch. The resulting holes are neat and tidy. The only exception is if I use it for a thicker document and don't put enough force on it quickly enough, sometimes there will be a few of the pages still with the little cut out discs of paper attached. Like most hole punches, the Rapesco one has a placement guide, a strip of plastic which can be pulled out from the body of the punch to show you where to place your paper in order to get the holes in the centre of it, depending on its size. This is a necessity for me in a hole punch: I have files where you can see where I've tried to judge where to put the punch without using the guide, and some documents stick out the top or bottom of the file. I'm useless at it. The guide on the Rapesco punch is a good one, as it sticks nicely in place when you adjust it to your paper size, and doesn't slide about while you're doing your punching. I've had this punch for over a year now, and it still looks good as new. Given that it sits in a corner of my desk and isn't subjected to any bashing about, that's not terribly surprising; I've never thrown it at anyone or even at a wall, although given that it's quite a solid and heavy thing, it would probably do more damage to them than they would to it. It's not the most interesting thing on my desk, but it's a necessity. This Rapesco Two Hole Punch does its job quietly and efficiently, and hasn't let me down yet.

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          29.01.2014 17:51
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          Parcel tape that doesn't annoy the whole office

          At times, my office can be very quiet, even when it is quite full. After several occasions of feeling very self-conscious while making a racket with brown parcel tape - you know that screechy-squeaky-ripping noise it makes as you pull it off the roll? - I bought some Scotch Low Noise Packaging Tape. By appearance, this is regular parcel tape. It's brown, shiny, about 5cm in width, and comes on a large roll. I use it for taping up boxes and packets before sending them by post or courier. The tape is about as easy as any other tape to peel off the roll - that is, not very easy. My biggest problem is finding the end of the roll. I know the sensible thing would be to fold it over once I'm finished using it so I can easily find the end next time, but I never remember, and the tape tends to restick itself to the roll very quickly. Once I've found the end of the roll, it's a bit fiddly to get hold of the tape, and I find that it tears quite easily. Brown tape tends to tear easily when you're picking it off the roll, but I think that this Scotch Low Noise tape is particularly bad. Pretty much every time I use it, I end up with a thin bit torn off before I manage to get the tape as a whole going. Once I do get it going, it peels off easily. It it easy to cut, and is very sticky so easy to stick onto your parcel. It seems to be reasonably strong despite its tendency to tear when starting to peel off the roll, but when taping up a box I always use more than one layer of the tape along each opening to make sure it stays taped shut. No one I've sent anything to has told me their parcel arrived open, so I assume the tape is holding my parcels shut. I use it on boxes which I take from the office to conferences, and they hold up fine, although they don't get thrown about as much as something in the post or courier network would. The tape is easy to cut to open a sealed box as well. So far, so good - this is a reasonable quality brown parcel tape. But the reason I chose this above other varieties was the "low noise" claim - Scotch claim that this tape won't make that nasty squeaky racket that is normal with parcel tapes. And they're not lying. It really is a quiet tape. It's not silent, it still makes a peeling noise but no worse than any regular roll of tape. I no longer find myself apologising to my colleagues when I have a parcel to send, as I shatter the peace of the office with noisy tape. Despite the tearing issue, I can't see myself buying any other kind of tape again. It may tear when being pulled off the roll, but it holds boxes closed and lives up to its main claim of being low noise.

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            24.01.2014 15:18
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            An excellent mobile phone from Samsung which doesn't need a bag to carry it around in

            A few months before I was due to upgrade my mobile, I started thinking about what kind of phone I would like to get. I really liked my Samsung Galaxy Ace, but it had limitations - it ran an older version of the Android operating system, which seemed to mean I couldn't watch videos on BBC iPlayer or the BBC mobile site, or on Google Play. So I wanted something which would allow me to do this, and the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini seemed to fit the bill - plus it was on Skys listed of supported Android devices for using the Sky Go app. In October, when the battery on my Galaxy Ace suddenly became rubbish (receiving a text and replying drained it), I decided to upgrade one month early. I did this through Carphone Warehouse instead of directly with o2, as they were offering a free TV with certain handsets, which was convenient as our TV had also recently died. Having endured the very long add-on sales pitch for cases, car chargers and insurance, I walked out of the shop the proud owner of a shiny blue Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini. Aside from the fact that it runs Android 4.1., aka Jelly Bean, which allows me to play videos, I chose the S3 Mini mainly on its size and appearance. I was really pleased with the Galaxy Ace, so I was fairly sure I wanted another Samsung - especially as phones from other Android brands seem to be quite angular, and I like a phone with curved edges. Size was key however, and this ruled out Samsungs headline offerings of the S3 and S4 - I don't want a phone that's half the size of my (small) tablet, I want a phone sized phone which will fit in my pocket. The S3 itself has more memory and perhaps is a more powerful phone, but I don't need that and would rather have a sensible sized phone, which is where the S3 Mini comes in. The S3 Mini is comparable in size to iPhones and the Galaxy Ace. It has a 4 inch screen and is roughly 1cm deep. According to the specs it weighs 120g, and this is a nice weight, it doesn't feel too fragile. My one has a blue back and sides, but it comes in other colours too. The back is quite shiny, and for the first couple of weeks I worried I might drop it easily if it slid out of my hand; I didn't actually drop it until last week, and it now has a lovely dent on one corner. It seems reasonably durable, as long as you take a bit of care - dropping it regularly is going to result in a battered phone, and the screen is glass so could potentially break easily if the phone landed on it. As far as the basic phone functions go, the S3 Mini does have improvements on my old Galaxy Ace. One issue I had with that was that pressing the one physical button on the front of the phone while in a call didn't hang up the phone, but it did keep the call open and it was a bit tricky to then get back into the call to hang up. The S3 Mini has some clever technology in it which wakes the screen back up when you move the phone - when you're making a call, the screen goes to sleep, which is very handy as it means you don't push buttons on the touchscreen while it's against your ear, but then when you take the phone away from your ear, the screen wakes up showing you the end call button on screen. Call quality is very good. I've had the odd problem when in areas with low signal, but that's to be expected and not the fault of the handset. I can always hear people clearly, volume is good and easy to control with buttons on the side of the phone. You can dial from your previous calls list, from a contact stored in the phone, or by entering the number on a keypad on the touchscreen. The touchscreen itself is sensitive but not overly so, and in general is very easy to use. The phone is unlocked by swiping anywhere on the lock screen which appears when you push the button on the front of the screen or the power button on the side. This is actually not ideal, and has led to me unlocking the phone in my pocket by accident several times. On the Galaxy Ace you had to swipe across the screen in a particular spot, which meant that if you woke the screen up in your pocket by accident, it was unlikely you'd then happen to swipe the screen in the right place. With the S3 though, if you wake the screen up while it's in your pocket, all it then takes to unlock it is pressure and a bit of movement anywhere on the screen, which is easily done. I've not yet "pocket-called" anyone, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time. Another slight issue with the touchscreen comes when texting. The keys in the onscreen QWERTY keyboard seem to be a bit smaller than those on the Galaxy Ace, and I frequently hit the wrong ones. This is compensated for by a feature of the keyboard, which brings up suggestions above it of what you might be trying to type - so if I make a mistake I generally don't have to delete to fix it, I just tap the word and it is corrected. This also saves time as it brings up words before you finish typing. It even remembers regular sentences - so if I type "anything", as soon as I hit space after that, it brings up "from" and so on, remembering that I sometimes text my partner asking if we need anything from the shop when I'm on the way home. The display quality is excellent. The screen is Super AMOLED, and while I don't know what that is, it sounds good and it certainly seems to be pretty damn good. Everything is crystal clear, and the TV shows and movies which I've watched on the phone have been fantastic quality. The only issue with those is that the phone seems to take a couple of minutes to display them properly - at first they tend to be a bit fuzzy and jerky, but once it settles down the quality is very good. The screen is obviously a bit small for watching things on, but when you don't have any other option it's fine - I was able to keep up with a couple of shows before our new TV arrived, watch films on long train journeys, and watch a show live on Sky while visiting my parents who don't have Sky. Internet use on a mobile is obviously dependent on your signal strength or wifi, however I've found using the internet to be even easier and faster on the S3 Mini than it was on the Galaxy Ace. There are occasionally delays if the signal isn't great, but aside from this it is quick and easy, and even non-mobile optimised websites work just fine. One improvement I have noticed is that the location finder on the S3 Mini works much better than on the Galaxy Ace - the TFL bus arrivals site knows where I am immediately without having to reload a couple of times, and the location on my weather widget is always very accurate. The Galaxy Ace once thought I was in Liverpool for three days after I'd returned to London, and when I was in North Berwick it thought I was in Fife. The battery on the S3 Mini is excellent. Watching videos or heavy call usage will run it down quicker, but I find I need to charge it less than every two days when using it normally - for me that's a few texts a day, messing about checking buses and reading the news before and after work, a couple of short calls, and about a total of 1 hour of listening to music every day. I looked at the battery usage a few days ago, it was on 15% and asking to be charged after two days and six hours of use. I listen to music on my phone every work day. I use the Amazon mp3 app, which so far is the best one I've found for Android. Sound quality is good, certainly comparable to any standalone mp3 player. My music is stored on a 16GB memory card, although the phone itself has a generous 4.55GB (at least that's what it says in the Storage section on my phone). I've been very pleased with the camera on the S3 Mini so far. Like the Galaxy Ace, it has 5MP, but the photos I've taken on the S3 Mini seem to be clearer and more crisp. The camera is easy to use, and has a variety of special features like sepia or black and white. I may have a few minor issues with the touchscreen, but overall I couldn't be happier with my choice of the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini. It is a big step up from the Galaxy Ace, it's an attractive phone and I can watch videos including TV and movies on it. It also seems to have put an end to my slight hankering for an iPhone, and I now feel more committed to Android than I previously did. The S3 Mini is a great phone, ideal if you want a good smartphone but don't want something the size of a towel. As long as Samsung continue making mini sized versions of their top phones, I see no reason why I'd switch to another brand come my next upgrade.

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              15.01.2014 12:39
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              An essential for my Dymo printer

              If you have a Dymo LabelWriter printer, you're going to need labels for it or it will just sit on your desk gathering dust. I don't know if there are alternative brands out there, but I always buy Dymo labels. I always choose the Large Address Labels, which are 89mm by 36mm. This is a fairly typical size for an address label, and is therefore the right size for most addresses. For the last six months or so I've been using the clear labels, for a particular reason. I organise several large internal conferences a year, and someone suggested using a label printer to create onsite name badges - print the label then stick it onto a blank badge. The white labels looked a bit too obvious for this, so I started using clear labels instead, and I've continued using them for normal use as well, as it's not easy to change the roll in the printer. The white labels are very slightly glossy. The address prints onto them very clearly, as you'd expect given that they are by the same manufacturer. There is never any wet ink as the label printer uses thermal print, not ink, so you can use them as soon as they finish printing without worrying about smudging them. The clear labels are matte in finish, and appear to be more opaque than clear, as they look a little like frosted glass. However if you stick them over other text or printing, it shows through very clearly. The matte finish works particularly well for the name badges I mentioned previously, and it blends in well with the white matte card that forms the badge itself. The large address labels come in a roll of 260. They're a bit of a pain to get into the label printer, something which I mentioned in my review of the printer itself. Once I do eventually get it going though (and I attribute the issues with that to the printer, not the labels), the labels feed into the printer fine, and come out the other side no problem. The only issue I have in this respect is that once printed, the labels are still very curly from being on a roll. This isn't a problem for a few, but there have been occasions when I've been printing 50 or 100 in one go, and I end up with a big curly mess of labels on my desk, which can get quite tangled. These are good quality labels, and are not easily torn. I just tried it - I thought I'd better test it for this review, and I couldn't tear a label. There may be alternatives available to use with the Dymo LabelWriter range, but these Dymo labels are good quality and you know for sure that they are compatible with the printers. I will continue buying them, as they ensure that my address labels and name badges are all printed clearly and legibly.

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              14.01.2014 17:52
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              A handy little storage box

              While wandering around a rather dull tradeshow, a display of brightly coloured stationery caught my eye. I always like some nice bright stationery to enliven my desk, so I wandered over to have a look. Of course one of the staff eagerly came over to try and sell me things, and while he was presenting the Leitz Click and Store range I commented that they were nice and I might have to get one for myself, for use at home - and he promptly gave me a free media storage box from the range. Clearly he was hoping I would buy more Leitz products, which in my defense I have, but from my company's stationery supplier. I was very pleased to be given the media storage box, as I hadn't just been saying the right thing when I had commented that maybe I would get one. I had been meaning to get a small storage box for tidying up all my general rubbish that finds its way onto the coffee table at home. This box is intended for storing CDs, but it's just a box, you can put what you like into it. The media storage box that I have is bright pink. I don't have a home decor theme or anything, so the bright pink doesn't clash with anything. Well, it would clash with the red sofa but fortunately it doesn't sit on the sofa. The box is made of a very sturdy cardboard, and comes flatpacked. This is where the Click and Store name comes in - you need to fold the various bits of the box into place, and they click together using popper button things. It's really easy to put together - I can't remember if there was a little instruction leaflet with the box, I'm sure there was but you really wouldn't need it. The size and shape of the box suits me perfectly, as it can sit in a narrow space in front of some books. The product information claims it holds 30 CDs in regular cases, and that would seem about right. As far as I'm concerned, it holds several small notebooks, a number of keyrings which haven't made it into my main collection yet, an assortment of USB sticks and memory cards, hospital appointment cards, pens, cat toys, a couple of old purses, and a hair donut that I haven't got the hang of yet. And probably lots of other bits and bobs but you get the idea. The box seems to be quite durable, although I haven't subjected it to too much abuse. There are no marks or dents on it, not even any claw marks from curious cats. It's not a heavy duty thing though, it's only made from cardboard after all, even if it is sturdy cardboard, so it won't survive a lot of bashing about. Probably also a good idea to keep it dry, although it is laminated so a bit of a wipe would be fine. Whether for CDs or general stuff, the Leitz Click and Store Media Storage Box is a good option when you need a small storage box. It's durable enough for normal use, it has a lid, and it's available in lovely bright colours.

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                13.01.2014 12:45
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                After Dead could have been brilliant, but like Dead Ever After it's a letdown

                Earlier this year I read and reviewed the final novel in Charlaine Harris's popular Sookie Stackhouse series, Dead Ever After.I concluded that I was unhappy with the rushed and forced feel to the ending, although I had suspected that was where she was heading after the previous novel. After that, I looked forward to the publication of After Dead: What Came Next in the World of Sookie Stackhouse with a kind of desperation, hoping that not only would it give me one last shot of the characters and stories I had grown to love, but also that it would provide a comfortable closure which had been missing from Dead Ever After. After Dead was published in October 2013. It promises to give details of what happened next to all the characters in the series, from the Ancient Pythoness to Bethany Zanelli, and everyone in between, including more details of Sookie's own happily-ever-after. It takes the form of an A to Z, taking us through what happened to characters after their final appearance in the series. Some characters are very minor, so minor that I struggle to remember tham, and I've read the series through several time. All the major characters are present though, so we find out what happened to them after Dead Ever After's slightly rushed conclusion. The entries for the major characters are understandably longer, although even Sookie only gets three pages, and Bill only one. The entries are concise, and give only a bare outline of the characters story. However in some cases the entries are rather vague, even for semi-major characters - the entries for Barry Bellboy and Quinn are barely more than a sentence, and include hints that we may hear more of them. For most characters I enjoyed reading more about what happened to them, although of course there are sad and shocking events in the stories told - this isn't a fairytale world after all. Yet it was the entries for the main characters which disappointed me most - they just served to remind me of how annoyed I was with the rushed ending of the series. They reinforced the feeling that Harris has decided how she wanted to end the series, and this was how it was going to be despite the story not naturally flowing that way. The book itself is incredibly short. It runs to 195 pages, not including a short note from Harris and a preview of her new book. But many of those pages are blank, or printed with an illustration for each letter of the alphabet, or only include a line or two of text. I read it all in the space of half an hour (well, I managed to make it last a bit longer by stopping halfway through to watch University Challenge, but it was half an hour in total), and that was a disappointment. I hadn't looked at the page count on Amazon, so I was expecting a volume more like the chunky Sookie Stackhouse Companion. The book itself is lovely though - a small hardback, with a soft matte cover which is lovely to touch, and shiny printed text and image on the front. It will sit nicely alongside my collection of the novels and other books go with the series. After Dead is a nice gesture, and a must-read for fans, but it is ultimately a let-down like Dead Ever After. The rushed ending is not redeemed by this endnote. The only thing I am clinging onto right now is that the TV show True Blood has deviated so far from the story of the novels that I have no idea what will happen next, so it's like a whole new Sookie Stackhouse story (although given the crazy direction that story has been going in lately, that's not necessarily a good thing). Anyway - After Dead: a nice idea but sadly Harris is not redeemed in the eyes of this fan.

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                18.12.2013 16:18
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                Smarter than the average envelope - but avoid the C4 size

                I have a stock of Conqueror envelopes in the stationery cupboard at work in case I need them. They're not something I would say that I use regularly, I have cheaper and plainer envelopes for everyday use, but the Conqueror envelopes are good for when I need something a bit smarter. Conqueror envelopes come in a variety of sizes. I mainly use the DL size, which is the standard letter size that fits a piece of A4 folded in three. They also come in different shades and textures. Currently I have a box of Smooth Cream envelopes, but I'm not averse to using the other shades or textures. I do think that for business use, the smooth ones are best - the textured ones are better for invitations and the like. The fact that these envelopes are Peel & Seal is very important for me - instead of licking it to seal it, you just peel off the strip and it has a sticky strip which seals the envelope for you. It does seem to seal very well. With most other brands of envelopes I feel that the seal is not entirely to be trusted, so I put a strip of tape over it just in case. This is something I've never had to do with a Conqueror envelope, which is just as well as a bit of tape along the back would ruin the smart look of the envelope. The appearance is the reason that you buy these envelopes. I can't imagine there are any businesses that would use these for all their correspondence and post, but they're ideal for any smarter-than-usual requirement. As my department does not deal with a lot of client correspondence, these are mostly used for internal letters such as promotion or award letters. The quality of the Conqueror envelopes is very good. Not only do they look good, but they are reasonably durable as well. Of course they can be torn fairly easily, but I think they need just that little bit more effort than the average envelope. There is however, one issue. The envelopes are see through. This is not a problem with the DL size, as the contents are generally a folded letter and you just make sure the writing is folded inwards. The same is also likely true of the C5, although I've never used this size. With the C4 however, if you place a letter in this you can very easily read it through the envelope. The only way round it is to place a sheet of plain paper in with it, to cover the text. My view on this is that we should simply avoid it by not using this size of envelope (our branded stationery is printed on Conqueror so I can't get an alternative, and trust me, I do not want to get into yet another argument with procurement), but for some reason there are some people who don't like to fold letters. The transparency of the C4 envelope is a major drawback to this range, and one which surprises me given the quality of the range in every other aspect. I can quite happily avoid using the C4 envelope, but it does let the range down. Ignoring the C4 though, I can say that the Conqueror DL envelope is a good choice for when a standard office envelope just doesn't quite cut it.

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                16.12.2013 12:22
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                Ideal for using with punched pockets

                You know that feeling, when you're building up a beautifully organised file, your documents separated tidily into punched pockets, a neatly labelled set of dividers through the file to keep it nicely organised...then you realise the dividers can't be seen because the punched pockets are wider than them. This was annoying me so much one day that I got out my stationery catalogue without really knowing what I was looking for, but sure that I couldn't be the only one to experience this frustration. Opening the section with dividers, lo and behold there was something called "Extra Wide Dividers" - that's the very thing for me I thought to myself. The first set that I bought was a cheap brand, but I've since started buying Concord for the better quality. The Concord Punched Pocket Subject Dividers Extra Wide always seem to be white (I've not seen them in multi coloured like regular dividers), and come in a variety of types, whether just regular or with an A-Z index on the front. I've used both regular and A-Z. The quality of the Concord dividers is pretty good. They are still made from quite thin card, so they're never going to stand up to heavy long term use, but they are better than the cheap dividers I was using previously, which were little better than paper. Like all dividers they come with a whole selection of holes punched down the side so they can fit into any type of file, although I only use them in two hole files. The regular dividers have no index page, and have the little stick out tabs for writing on to distinguish each section of your file from the others. The regular ones I have are in sets of 10, so the little tabs are a bit small and not ideal if you have a large subject to write on. The A-Z ones come ready labelled, and you have an index page where you can write the contents of each letter but generally I don't, as I use them for filing contracts alphabetically and that is self explanatory. The main point of buying these dividers over standard ones is the width, so that the tabs stick out beyond the punched pockets you are filing. In this respect they're great, and the tabs do stick out far enough to be of use. Now I can easily flip to the right section of a file without having to guess which tab is the right one. However one negative point is that I think the tabs on these extra wide dividers get batters a bit more easily than regular size dividers. I'm not quite sure why this is, and it's not from heavier usage - I actually use my files with regular size dividers a bite more than the lever arch files that these are in. And I don't think it is necessarily due to the quality - these Concord dividers are good quality compared to most dividers. It must be something to do with the punched pockets, but I can't figure out what. I can live with that though, and having slightly battered tabs on the dividers is better than not being able to see the dividers. These Concord Extra Wide Dividers are a must for anyone filing punched pockets.

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                • Hotpoint BHWM129/1 / Washing Machine / 29 Readings / 27 Ratings
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                  10.12.2013 15:37
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                  A good washing machine

                  The story of this washing machine starts with a bit of drama. One evening back in March this year, I put on a load of laundry. When I opened the machine an hour later when it was done, we were alarmed to see and smell smoke coming out of the drum. After a bit of debate and a fruitless search for a non-emergency fire service number, we decided we should probably do something about it, although we couldn't see any sign of fire - smoke coming from an electrical appliance is never good news. The very nice London Fire Brigade promptly despatched a fire engine to us. Our small flat was soon full of large fully kitted out firemen and women, and using their little electrical heat scanning gadget they said there was no fire but we needed to get the washing machine looked at. The plumber who was sent said there was no problem. After this was repeated two more times (minus the fire brigade), our managing agent finally sent someone who knew what they were doing - he announced the machine was repairable but we'd be better with a new one. And that's how we ended up with the Hotpoint BHWM129/1. Living in a rented flat, we had no choice in the washing machine. However when it was delivered I was quite frankly so pleased to have a washing machine that was unlikely to start smoking that I didn't care. Once I considered it properly, I was pleased to have a Hotpoint as it's a brand I know to be good. To look at, it's a washing machine. It's not a particularly snazzy looking one, but it's not ugly either. Ours is integrated and hidden behind a cupboard door, but you wouldn't mind if it was on display. The control panel has three dials and a couple of buttons, and quite a few lights to indicate what stage of the cycle it is on. The dials each control type of cycle, temperature and whether you have any drying in the cycle. You can combine these settings to tailor make your wash cycle. Generally I just use the one hour quick wash, at 30 or 40C, and with no drying, but there are also the usual settings for cottons, wool etc, as well as ones designed for baby clothes and other slightly different settings. It has a 6.5kg capacity which is perfectly adequate for laundry for two. Typically for us, we fired straight in without looking at the instruction manual. The first load I did took two and a half hours, which is just far too long. It was after this that I consulted the manual and found the symbol for the one hour wash. I would recommend checking the manual to understand the wash cycles available - I found the symbols and numbers on the machine were not very obvious. In operation, the washing machine is noisy, as most are, but to me it seems really quite quiet. I actually think that is because our old machine was very noisy and rattly, possibly due to the off-centre drum which turned out to be the problem, and also because the cupboard door which covered it didn't close properly and banged about a bit. As well as the Hotpoint machine being less rattly, the door is also closing properly now. Because of this contrast between the old machine and the new, it's hard for me to gauge what the noise level of the Hotpoint is really like, but I think it is probably about average. Our kitchen and living room are open plan, and I don't find the washing machine to be particularly intrusive when it is on. I use detergent (powder or gel) in every wash, and fabric conditioner in most washes. I have found that if I don't use fabric conditioner in the Hotpoint, the laundry doesn't come out fragranced as there is nothing to fragrance it, but on the other hand it doesn't come out smelling bad. When I use fabric conditioner it comes out smelling lovely of course. All the laundry that I've done has come out nice and clean, fully rinsed and well drained. I once had a washing machine which occasionally managed to tear holes in clothes (socks and woolly jumpers mainly) but that's not something which has happened with the Hotpoint. I find the washing machine very easy to use. I load it, the door closes easily and you can tell it is secure, then add the detergent and fabric conditioner to the drawer - which has stayed pristine clean in around 5-6 months of use, no nasty gungy build up. The dials on the front stay set to my default cycle and I only have to change it when I want a different temperature or longer cycle. I should point out that the washing machine does have a drying function which I've never used. I've had machines with drying functions in the past, including the smoking machine, and they never tend to be very effective - all they seem to do is use a lot of electricity, take absolutely ages, and leave your clothes hot and wet. So I don't feel inclined to bother trying the drying function on the Hotpoint. I have two issues with this Hotpoint washing machine, and on the whole they are fairly minor. To be honest, I'm so happy to have a non-smoking quieter machine that I think it's brilliant. However, it would be nice if it had a countdown timer on the front, which my old machine had - this is a matter of convenience rather than necessity, but it's nice to be able to look at the front and see if you've got time to have a cup of tea or whatever before you need to take the laundry out. The other issue is similar - my old machine beeped when it was finished a cycle, but the Hotpoint doesn't. It does click loudly as it switches off, which is noticeable if you're paying attention and in the same room, but a beep would be handy. However, neither issue is major, and neither feature is essential. Overall, I'm very pleased with this Hotpoint washing machine. I didn't get to choose it, but it's a good all-round washing machine - no bells or whistles, but it washes my laundry efficiently and quietly, and does a good job of it. I expect ours was bought through some trade provider or wherever companies buy appliances for their properties, but I've just checked Currys and they have it for £417. This seems to be pretty reasonable for what they're calling an integrated washer-dryer. Maybe I should try that drying function after all...

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                    26.11.2013 12:23
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                    A great addition to my kitchen

                    Just over a year ago I finally decided what to buy with some Lakeland vouchers I'd had for a while - a slow cooker. I'm not quite sure how I got the idea, but it got into my head and stuck. I had look on the website, then decided that I didn't want to pay for delivery and set off to my nearest branch (surprisingly far, there's not many in London). I bought a Lakeland Mini Slow Cooker, designed for two people and only £20. The Mini Slow Cooker is a 1.5litre cooker. I was tempted by the larger ones, and the possibility of making huge batches of food and freezing it, but they were more expensive and it wasn't really necessary. Besides, having never used a slow cooker before it seemed wisest to stick with the cheapest option. The slow cooker itself is made up of three parts - the outer container which heats up, the "crock" or stoneware pot which holds the food, and the glass lid. There are three settings - high, low and auto. The outside of the cooker is dull stainless steel, and the pot is a glazed black. Before starting I was very careful to read the instruction booklet. It's not lengthy, but it covers everything you need to know. The slow cooker is very easy to use, and doesn't require much guidance - put your ingredients in the pot, put the pot in the cooker, switch it on and leave it alone, perhaps stirring occasionally. The setting you use depends on what you're cooking and how long you want it to take - high cooks quicker than low, although in some cases a slower cook is desirable. I tend to use high for a couple of hours, and then change to low. I could probably use auto - it cooks on high and then switches to low to simply keep the food warm. Everyone I've spoken to about slow cookers, and the recipe book I bought, has told me that the beauty is you can put it on in the morning and then the food will be ready when you get home. I know that thousands of people must have done this with no mishap, but frankly I don't feel safe doing that. The slow cooker uses a minimal amount of electricity, but I still can't reconcile leaving a cooking apparatus on while I'm out as being safe. So I've never tried it. There will probably be loads of comments telling me I'm daft, but there you go. I use the slow cooker at weekends when one of us is home. Besides, I like to stir the food every hour or so. I love using the slow cooker - it takes just a few minutes to prepare the ingredients, and then just leave it alone to cook a tasty meal. I'm vegetarian, but one thing that appealed was being able to cook interesting meat dishes for my partner, so I've made casseroles and stews for him. Some recipes tell you to brown meat before putting it in the slow cooker, but there doesn't seem to be a great deal of benefit to this so I don't bother. I also make vegetable stews and curries in it - these tend to cook quicker than the meat, although root vegetables are supposed to take longer. Generally, the slow cooker cooks faster than I expect it to. I've never used it for more than 4-5 hours, instead of the 6-8 mentioned in some recipes. The name of the slow cooker is a bit inaccurate - the "Two Portion" part of it anyway. This mini slow cooker might not make enough to feed a family, but it holds enough for both of us, and at least one portion to freeze. As a result I don't regret not going for a larger slow cooker - we'd be eating stew for weeks if I had. The resulting stews, curries and casseroles from the slow cooker are all perfectly cooked, the meat and vegetables tender and full of flavour from the sauce they have absorbed. I've never burnt anything in the slow cooker, although I'm sure if you left it too long, you'd find the food stuck to the bottom. The sides of the slow cooker get warm, but not dangerously so although you'd still want to keep kids away from it. Rather surprisingly our cats show no interest in it, which means we don't have to be too vigilant. Sometimes the lid rattles a bit if the contents are bubbling, but turning the setting to low soon sorts that out. The slow cooker is really easy to clean. The pot and lid can be washed with the rest of your dishes, and the base should be kept clean with a cloth. I don't use my slow cooker terribly often, but for £20 I think it is a great addition to my kitchen. I can make curries without having to stand over the cooker, and I never made stews and casseroles before I had it. I don't use it for soup as that is very quick to do on the hob, but I might try it some time. I would recommend slow cooking in general, and this Lakeland Two Portion Mini Slow Cooker is ideal for couples of those living alone.

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                      25.11.2013 13:15
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                      A reasonable at home coffee machine

                      Some months ago, I recieved an email from Costa. As a holder of their Coffee Club loyalty card, they were offering me the chance to buy a Tassimo coffee machine for only £30, plus I'd get a £25 voucher for the Tassimo shop. Although I don't drink coffee myself, my partner is a bit of a connosieur, so I've considered home coffee machines before - and this seemed like too good an offer to refuse, as the Tassimo T40 normally costs around £100. So I ordered my Tassimo T40, and spent the days before it was delivered having a good look around the website to see all the drinks we could make in it. The Tassimo range includes a wide variety of coffee types an strengths, several hot chocolates, a range of Twinings teas, and the Costa At Home range, hence the offer from Costa. The Tassimo T40 is a plain yet smart machine. My model is all black, and I'm not sure if this one comes in different colours, although certainly some Tassimos do. It has a stand at the front for your cup, which can be raised or removed to allow for different sized cups - the default height is perfect for the average sized mug. There is a power switch and one large button on the front. The back has a removeable water tank. First of all, operation. The Tassimo T40 is very easy to use. You make your drinks using Tassimo t-discs, which have barcodes on them - the machine reads the barcode once the disc is inserted, and it knows what kind of drink it is making, and therefore how much water and steam to use. Tassimo calls this system "Intelibrew". Inserting the disc is the trickiest part - it took me a couple of days to realise that the disc holder closes in two stages, which explained why I had been having trouble closing it. The disc sits in the holder, closing it pierces the foil on the disc, and then the machine runs hot water and steam through the contents while the drink pours out into your cup. Easy peasy. The water tank and cup holder can be removed and washed up with your dishes, but you need to keep the disc holder and barcode reader clean too. This is best done with a dry cloth, but sometimes you might need to give it a careful wipe with a damp cloth. The insides of the machine also need to be cleaned, which is done by using the service disc which comes with the machine - this basically tells the machine to run hot water through the machine to clean it. Tassimo recommend that you clean the machine weekly, or daily if you are using drinks made with milk discs (more on that shortly). The machine will also need to be descaled from time to time, how often will depend on the water hardness where you live. As we live in London and have hard water, I ordered some descaling tablets shortly after buying the machine, so I had them ready. The Tassimo website tells you to order them from the Bosch website (who manufacture the machine), but you can get them cheaper from Amazon. There are step-by-step instructions for descaling in the machine's manual. The process takes about half an hour, and is pretty easy to set up. The Tassimo T40 has lights on the front around the main button, which show standby, in operation, top up (to add more water to your drink as it finishes), water level low and descaling needed. As for the drinks, this is strictly speaking a review of the machine, but what use is a review of a drinks machine which doesn't tell you whether the drinks are any good? As I mentioned before, I don't drink coffee, but my partner has been impressed with most of the coffees he has tried. He usually has espresso discs, Carte Noire being the best, and mixes that with hot milk to make a flat white. He didn't like the Costa Americano, said it was too watery, and neither of us likes the milk discs that come with certain drinks - the Costa Latte being one of them. He said the coffee from that was good when mixed with real milk, but the milk disc was rubbish. On the strength of the hot chocolates I've tried, I agree with him on that - so now we buy hot chocolate discs but don't use the milk discs which come with them. Cadburys hot chocolate is good, but Milka is the best. The tea selection hasn't impressed me very much. The first ones I bought were flavours exclusive to Tassimo, as I thought there wasn't much point in buying tea I could get cheaper in teabag form. But they weren't great - and avoid the Apres Midi de l'Orient like the plague, the taste isn't terrible but the smell made me feel sick. I bought some Twinings English Breakfast just to see if I could get some decent tea out of the Tassimo, and it's really quite nice, but I still prefer my loose leaf teas. The packs of discs cost on average £4, and are available from the Tassimo website, supermarkets and Amazon. Sadly there doesn't seem to be anywhere that you can get them cheaper, although the Tassimo site often has one at a time reduced to £3 - but delivery is only free if you spend £35, and under that it is £5. So our verdict is that the Tassimo T40 is a quick and easy way to make tasty coffees and hot chocolates, although they don't match up to in-store ones from Costa, it is much cheaper and of course it has the benefit of being in the comfort of your own home. My £30 Tassimo T40 was a bargain, and I'm very pleased with it, but I don't think the quality of the drinks is quite good enough to make it worth £100.

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