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fulldonx

fulldonx
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Member since: 11.01.2010

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    • Adidas in general / Discussion / 34 Readings / 32 Ratings
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      18.02.2011 14:17
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      Best trainers on the market today

      You can tell a lot about a man by the trainers he wears. In fact, the trainers on someone's feet can really determine the person they are in life. Think back to the days in the playground where you were glad not to be the kid in Gola trainers, shunned by the popular crowd. Maybe you were that Gola kid, enviously looking on at the Pumps and Classics giving cushioned delight to the cool kids. It seemed as though trainers could just be the key to happiness.

      I was always a Reebok classic kind of guy growing up. Not too in-your-face, just a middle of the road, safe option. Perhaps once a year I may go crazy and get a pair that had a sliver of colour other than white or silver...but not often. Classics and me were a good fit and it made trainer-purchasing a time-efficient and enjoyable experience.

      As we grow though, our tastes change. Nowadays as an adult I like to think that I have a more refined taste and am a more discerning customer when it comes to what's on my feet. It is certainly a tougher process when it is your wages rather than your parents' that is spent on your choice of footwear. And my trainer of choice these days? Adidas Porsche Design.

      Now at the risk of sounding dreadfully middle class, picking the wrong type of trainer can really give of the wrong impression. Consciously tatty in an attempt to capture that "tramp-chic" look just really isn't me. Middle-class men trying uber-hard to be down with the cool kids is something I hope I never become. Similarly the rude boi youths with their ice white, straight-out-of-the-box fresh footwear is really not the look I am after.

      The Porsche Design range really continues my middle-of-the-road Reebok Classic mindset but with an added touch of class and exclusivity. The designs are wonderfully simple, yet elegant. The trainers do not shout "look at me" with vibrant or garish colours. They are the sort of trainers that compliment a really nice pair of True Religion jeans and don't look out of place even when the rest of the outfit is fairly smart. They are timeless and they are effortlessly cool. The design, the curves, the colours are all perfected to a level that you would expect from a company with a rich history in designing some of the most beautiful automobiles of the last 100 years.
      The Porsche Design trainers generally sell at £70-75 which I don't think is that bad considering the prices for some of the horrendous footwear you see adorning the shelves of Footlocker and JD Sports. The latter of those 2 retailers actually seems to have the rights to exclusive new designs in this range so this is the best place to find them.

      One thing I used to like about my Reebok Classics is that I knew exactly what I was getting, I knew the size, I knew how they would fit, I knew how to look after them. This is the same as the Porsche Design range. I know the quality I am getting and I also know the feel-good factor that comes from stepping into a brand new pair and then stepping out in the brand new pair. People comment on Porsche Designs in a way I was not prepared for when I bought my first pair. There is a knowing look from my fellow males when out. "Hey, Porsche Designs...nice choice".
      I actually believe that as long as Adidas keep making Porsche Designs then I will never need to look at another trainer. Of course my tastes may change over time, but anyone reading this review that has not seen a pair of Porsche Designs I would urge them to head to the nearest JD sports. Go past the rude boys and the chavs (and by this I mean the shop assistants), look for that 3-striped logo and in amongst the rough you will find these diamonds.

      I am on my fourth pair now, each subtly different to the last, yet all dripping with excellence. Long may this love affair continue.

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    • Navman F45 / GPS Sat Nav / 26 Readings / 22 Ratings
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      18.02.2011 11:20
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      A bargain GPS system that performs well against more expensive alternatives

      My male ego always dictated that I would never need a Sat Nav, that I had an excellent sense of direction and that I always knew where I was going "in my head". That was fine when I used to only hire cars every now and then to drive familiar routes. 18 months ago I decided to buy my own car...17.5 months ago I decided I needed a Sat Nav.

      I never knew that there were so many products and manufacturers in this market and so choosing a model was pretty difficult. As I was still in my belligerent phase, I assumed I wouldn't be needing/using it much so I wanted to keep the costs down. I was also reliably told that you "pay for the name" when it comes to Tom Tom's. I eventually opted for the Navman F45, having done some high street browsing before eventually ordering it off Amazon.

      2 things drew me towards this model, firstly the price...£75 seemed pretty reasonable to me for up to date full UK and Europe coverage, a charger for the car and a windscreen mount. There really are no hidden costs with this system. The second thing was the design and look of the product, sleek black finish with a great 4.3" touchscreen...there would be no squinting of eyes to see what was going on!

      Once I got the Navman out of the box and had a play around with it, I was still equally impressed with what I found. This is so easy to use, a simple on/off switch on top and a socket to plug in the charger and you're ready to go. Once it is booted up, the language selected and the safety announcement agreed to (didn't really read this) then you are presented with an easy to follow main menu. There are loads of options, spread across 3 pages including Food, Fuel and parking for when you just need to find the nearest one of each. More often than not you will be using it for navigation and so you will select the address option. Once in this you can enter either a street name, place or postcode via the simple touchscreen keyboard that pops up.

      Having had this a while I can honestly say I have never had a problem with the system not giving me an accurate street name based on a postcode in the UK. Once entered and the address selected, the Navman will calculate the quickest route. I am always impressed by how quickly the route comes up, I sometimes use it when I pretty much know the quickest route already and it always agrees with me. If you are likely to be in a rush when you get in the car then you can pre-programme the address as a favourite which is then stored on the device. In fact, you can store up to 200 destinations as favourites which is great if you have places you will be visiting on more than one occasion.
      The connection is always very swift, taking literally from turning it on to the GPS picking up your location. If you were to miss a turn for whatever reason then it will update and recalculate an alternative route very quickly

      I have a few favourite features about this device which I'll tell you about. The intelligent feature that makes the device recognise when it is night and day is very clever. The screen automatically adjusts the brightness to make is less distracting to the driver depending on the light conditions. There is pre-loaded speed/safety camera information which is very useful for avoiding those £60 fines (or worse). The device emits a beeping sound when you are approaching one of these cameras and are going faster than the legal limit. Another feature I really like is the ability to choose the map view you want. 3D map, 2D map, Route summary and Turn-by-turn all have their uses in different circumstances.
      A clever built in feature if that if you plan a route that includes toll roads then the device will let you know and offer alternative routes in order to avoid the charges.

      In the interests of a balanced review I have to try and come up with some negatives which is genuinely quite difficult for this bit of kit. I suppose the battery life isn't great if you were to not have it plugged in. Personally I only ever use it in the car and so it is always plugged in when it is on.
      When I was in America last year I hired a car and was given a Garmin Nuvi to play with. I did notice when using this that it seemed a little bit quicker all round than my Navman. Whether it was the fact there were more street in Los Angeles to challenge the accuracy or maybe the GPS signal was slightly better over there I don't know, but it just seemed to be absolutely bang on with my location no matter what speed I was going. Coming back home and using the Navman, it just seemed to be a tiny bit slower in updating my exact position on the roads. I've looked up the Garmin model I had and it is 50% more expensive than what I paid for my Navman and so for the money I am happy to take this ever-so-slight hit on the overall performance.
      This device is no frills, lots of the gimmicky stuff that you get on the more expensive models on the market has been removed. There is no Bluetooth, wifi, traffic management or multimedia player for example. If, like me, you just want it to help you to get from A-B then it is perfect for that.

      In summary, this GPS system really does pack a lot of punch for the money it will set you back. Lovely widescreen, intuitive features and superb reliability with everything you need to get going included in the box, you really cannot go wrong with this device.

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      • Samsung i9000 Galaxy S / Smartphone / 39 Readings / 37 Ratings
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        16.02.2011 12:58
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        I probably should have gone for the iphone.

        When my contract expired last summer I was faced with a decision...do I stick with the cheap contracts and basic phones or do I take the plunge into this brave new world of smart phones. Given the handset I am reviewing, you can see the decision I made...although if I had my time over again I would probably have chosen differently. My mindset at the time was that I wanted a smart phone but I was going to avoid apple products because I didn't want to be one of the millions of "i-sheep".

        I generally love Samsung products. The look, the feel, the comments from other people all add to the experience and general feeling that you have bought a top quality product. With this phone the comments were generally "oh, it looks like an iphone". Yes, it looks and feels good, but the design is undeniably an apple clone. Is that such a bad thing though? I mean Apple have well and truly set the benchmark in the smart phone world with their iphone series. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and so to aspire to greatness is not necessarily a flaw. It is about the same size and width as an iphone although it is noticeably lighter as well which is a bonus. This could be due to the plastic casing which some people don't like, I personally think it makes the phone look pretty sleek...although I'm not sure how much "bounce-back-ability" there'd be if I dropped it on the pavement!

        Sadly for Samsung, while this handset may look like an iphone and smell like an iphone, it just doesn't quite operate with the same efficiency as an iphone. My other half has the iphone and so I have had a lot of time to use both handsets and so I feel I can make a justified comparison. The operating system on the Samsung is just generally slower...navigation around the menus takes longer, and staring at a blacked out screen for 5 seconds or more is a daily experience. Even after upgrading to the latest operating system released by android (2.2) I still experience awful lags.

        On the positive side, the phone is farily easy to use, even as a newcomer to this type of technology. The screens are well laid out and, unlike iphones, they are customisable meaning you can play around with the menus and have icons where you want them. The internet browser is fairly standard and quick enough providing you are connected up to wi-fi. When browsing the net "on the go" it is very much a lottery as to whether or not you can actually get pages to load up. The built in video player is decent enough although you can upgrade via the android market (more about this later).
        One excellent feature of the phone is that there is 16gb of built in memory. This means I can have about 15-20 full length films on there or around 4,500 mp3s, so this could in theory replace an ipod that you may currently be using.
        The screen is a 4" 'super AMOLED' which really was one of the selling points to me. It is crystal clear and great for browsing the net or watching movies. The picture is crisp and sharp and has impressed everyone that I have shown it to. It is clearly visible even in direct sunlight which is a bonus when you are on the go. Films can be watched widescreen and thus maintain their original aspect ratio rather then being resized to fit a smaller screen. I've had many envious eyes peering over my shoulder to see what I am watching when I am getting the tube to work in the mornings. The sound quality (not volume - more on this later) is really good
        The Android (Google) operating system and app store is the main rival to apple. In fact, the Android market is growing faster over in the States which is a good indication for the future. The android market allows developers to create their own apps and put them on the marketplace (open source), so are free and some are available to purchase for a small price. The key to this is competition, the developers are up against each other and with all apps open to critique from users, the quality of apps can only get better. Samsung has its own apps which are set aside under a different icon..some of which are really quite good, for example Asphalt - a really cool racing game.
        The camera is fairly good quality at 5mp, although being an SLR owner, I view all cameras on phones as a bit gimmicky and pointless as the quality is always inferior to what I would like. The phone doesn't have a flash though which I found strange, so you are pretty much limited to daytime shots.
        The phone can connect to your computer via USB or Bluetooth. I have to say that the Kies software that you put on your computer to manage the phone is actually very good. Dropping and dragging files and searching the net for updates is quick and easy. I was surprised at how fast I was able to transfer files, especially large ones.

        Now for the bad. I have to start by condemning the battery life as an absolute joke. I can have this thing charging all night and then if I am doing stuff at work the next day then it can be dead by the time I get home. It is quite simply not good enough that I have had to buy another charger to have at work for when the juice inveitably runs out. I don't care what it says in the official stats from Samsung about this phone...you will not get anything like the length of battery life they talk about.
        I've already mentioned the lagging, but I must raise it again as it is a serious flaw on the phone. I do not have a load of third party apps or dodgy downloads on the handset, I also have anti-virus software installed so there really is no reason for the slowness at times. It is like trying to play a brand new PC game on a really old laptop and it is just downright frustrating. When it crashes and you have to restart it, it can take an absolute eternity to boot up to a useable level.
        I've mentioned the video and sound quality, they are undeniable. However, the sound volume is really not loud enough when you have the headphones plugged in. Anyone who uses the Tube in London will know that there is a lot of ambient noise on an average journey. Listening to music or watching a film would, you hope, drown this out...sadly it is the opposite with this handset. I can be watching a film and the only time I will actually hear any dialogue is when I am sat stationary at a station.
        I've noticed that this handset makes a habit of randomly dropping calls. Usually I would blame the network provider but I have been with Vodafone for over 10 years now and I know that their coverage is exceptional. I'm not sure what the reason is, and various different operating systems have failed to fix the problem. All I know is it is infuriating!

        So how do I sum it up? Well it is getting 3 stars because whilst not being the worst bit of kit on the market, it is far from the best. If I was simply rating it as a phone then it would score low due to the battery life, lagging and call-dropping. However today's phone is so much more than just a phone and I cannot ignore the Android marketplace or the unbelievable quality of the display for watching films on. I really had high hopes for this handset, the write-ups and TV adds are very impressive, albeit slightly misleading. It's almost a shame that the iphone exists because it sets the bar for this type of phone and in some areas the Samsung really fails to live up to it.
        at £35 a month for the next 2 years I am sure there will be lots of regrets tempered by moments when I am truly amazed by the capabilities of the handset.

        A few years ago I had the Samsung U700 which was, I believe, the companies first foray into the world of touchscreen phones. After deliberately breaking it to get a different handset I vowed to never again own a Samsung phone...time will tell if I should have stuck to my own advice.

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        • Canon EF 50mm f1.8 MK2 / Camera Lens / 21 Readings / 18 Ratings
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          16.02.2011 11:12
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          Fantastic "must have" lens for low budget, high quality portrait photography

          Any SLR owner will know that the true cost of this hobby comes with the outlay required for decent lenses. Buying a decent body is not even half of the story (or the expenditure). One good thing is that you can purchase the lenses according to your budget, but every now and then there is a truly brilliant, professional quality lens, available at amateur enthusiast prices. Step forward the Canon 50mm 1.8 mk2. I actually used my dooyoo amazon vouchers to purchase this lens and it set me back a mere £80. Known as a "prime" lens because it has a fixed focal length of 50mm, this lens is ideal for portrait photography. With an aperture that goes down to f1.8, you can get brilliant low depth of field shots that really do look professional in quality (low depth of field is where the subject is in focus and the background is blurred). Critics may look at the lens and see that it does not have IS (Image stabiliser), nor does it have USM (ultra sonic motor)...Yes it also has a plastic mount that may feel like it is slightly more flimsy than some more expensive lenses...all I would say to that is take it out for a field test and look at the results. This lens allows shots that are rich in colour and the clarity and sharpness of shots between stops f4-f11 are truly outstanding.
          I cannot speak highly enough of this lens and I would be happy with the quality of the shots I get even if it has cost me 3-4 times as much.
          I am an intermediate SLR user and I shoot on a manual setting with a Canon EOS 450d.

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            13.04.2010 12:49
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            I can't imagine ever not using either this bag, or another in the series

            I bought this camera bag about 2 months ago and it has been nothing short of brilliant. Some brands you can buy in the knowledge that the product will be top quality, and Lowepro is one of these brands. Yes, there are cheaper makes on the market but when you are carrying round a lot of expensive equipment, it makes sense to push the boat out a little and pay for a high quality bag for transportation. With Lowepro the quality difference is tangible, their products both look and feel more professional and durable.

            I bought this from Amazon (using Dooyoo gift vouchers in fact) and it cost me a few pence over £40 with free delivery as standard. On the website it lists the rrp as £97.90 which seems a little far fetched, although I have seen it in high street shops, including Jessops, at well over £60.

            I'm fairly new to digital photography and will be wanting to add more lenses, hoods, guides etc to my collection and as such I wanted a bag that could accommodate me for the medium term as I look to take more equipment out with me. I currently have a Canon 450d with the standard 18-55mm kit lens and a 55-250mm lens. I did a fair bit of research online and also went into various high street shops to size up the bags and in the end opted to go for the Slingshot 200 as it seemed to tick all of my requirement boxes.
            For those with slightly more equipment, or even less then this bag is part of a range with the 100 suited for less hardware and the 300 being the next size up which I may have to purchase in due course.

            The inner compartments of the main storage area are all attached with Velcro, which allows them to be easily adjusted to safely store my camera with either of my lenses attached. Each Velcro-attached "wall" is very well padded and so the camera or its accessories are very unlikely to suffer damage from being bashed together in this bag.

            The listing says that the bag will store a DSLR plus 3-4 lenses and this is probably about right, although if you want to carry flashes, hoods and other accessories then obviously this means less lenses can be accommodated.

            The camera equipment is all stored in the lower half of the bag, at the bottom of this is an all-weather cover which is concealed in a pocket at the bottom of the bag. This is a great feature as we all know how unreliable the British weather can be and excess rain water + expensive DSLR equipment = a recipe for disaster. Another nice feature is a pocket built especially for memory cards in the main part of the bag. One final nice touch is the pull out LCD screen-cleaner which is the perfect soft material for both giving your screen a wipe before/after use and also for protecting it during transit.

            At the top of the bag there is a good sized zip compartment which is the perfect size for a couple of handbooks, a bit of lunch, or even the essentials that you don't want in your pockets such as keys, cigarettes, phone, ipod etc. You could even put a point and shoot camera in here if you wanted. There is also a small drawstring compartment which you can put loose change in to stop it rattling around.

            The bag is designed for easy access to the camera compartment. It has only one shoulder strap and is worn just like a rucksack with the strap going diagonally across the front of your body. There is another strap which clicks into the main shoulder strap and means that it is both secured and comfortable. To access the camera, simply release the smaller strap and swivel the bag around your body so that it is in front of you. Note the main strap stays around you at all times and so there is no need to take the bag off and put it down. The design of the camera compartment means that you can unzip this area and have easy access to your equipment without it all falling to the ground. As the jargon says, you can go from "carry mode" to "ready mode" in a matter of seconds.

            I have read some reviews from females who are, how shall I say, larger in the chest region and they claim that the bag can become uncomfortable after a while on long walks. Obviously I am not in a position to comment on that but from my perspective the bag has been very comfortable whenever I have used it. I've not had any instances where I have felt uncomfortable or the bag has started to rub anywhere.

            When it comes to camera bags there are plenty of options. I started out with one of those standard ones that you just wear over the shoulder (came bundled in with the original purchase). But as the amount of stuff I wanted to take out with me increased, so did my need for something bigger and sturdier. This bag is perfect for me, it is designed brilliantly, comfortable to wear, and stores my camera and accessories both safely and securely whilst affording me easy access.
            The look and feel of the bag is one of quality, the straps are sturdy and the fastenings don't look like they are going to fall to pieces at any time in the near future. At the Amazon price this bag is an absolute bargain and a must for any roving photographer.

            Delighted with my choice.

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            • Asda / Highstreet Shopping / 40 Readings / 38 Ratings
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              09.04.2010 11:08
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              For all your shopping needs at a wallet-friendly price

              I've never really been a supermarket snob, I mean the stuff that I want to buy on a weekly basis I can generally pick up in all of the major supermarkets. I've often heard people laugh at Asda for its low-rent clientele, but is that more a factor of where the store is located rather than the store itself?

              People seem to think that if they shop in Waitrose then that somehow makes a more favourable statement about themselves. If they are only buying branded goods then is the extra cost really worth the differently named bag that you carry your stuff home in?

              People may harp on about how the "shopping experience" is better. Really? You push your trolley round, chuck stuff in it, pay and then leave...is the experience really that much different from shop to shop.

              Because I drive, I have pretty much all of the major supermarkets accessible to me within a few miles, but I choose to use Asda and the rest of this review should explain why.

              For me, the weekly shop is all about cost, selection and convenience and that is why I use Asda. It is the closest large supermarket to where I live, open 24 hours and loads of parking available.

              It ticks all of the convenience boxes, but what about cost and selection available?

              Whilst branded stuff may have a standard rrp that retailers generally adhere to, you can barely move around my local Asda without your eye being drawn to some sort of "2-for-£1" or "Buy-one-get-one-free" type offers. At the moment they are running a 4-for-£3 offer across a variety of frozen foods - a lot of which is branded stuff like Birdseye. Also their own brand pizzas - which are actually really good, especially the Pepperoni - are generally 3-for-£3. Over Easter as well they had Mars and Cadbury's Cream Egg Easter eggs for £1 which is ideal when you have a few people to buy for. A Mars bar on its own is usually around 60p!

              As a member of the Wal-Mart family, Asda has adopted the "everything under one roof" mentality. And what a massive roof it is, I've never seen an Asda that is smaller than about 3 football pitches. The American adage that bigger is better is certainly something embraced by Asda stores.
              Go into many stores and alongside food you will find an opticians, a pharmacy, a dedicated "entertainments" section, a clothing range and a large selection of books and magazines.

              Asda often has great offers on CD's and DVD's that you simply would not see on the high street. I usually end up adding on a DVD or 2 to the weekly shop...much to the annoyance of my Mrs! One example was the Hurt Locker which was on offer for £7 the week after it received its Oscar rewards. In all of the other high street retailers it was upwards of £12.
              In the same entertainment and electronics section you can pick up some great home appliances at really good prices. This is perfect when you are just moving in somewhere for the first time and need to pick up a toaster (£8) a kettle (£8) and a microwave (£35 - for a Sanyo).

              Their book aisle is very impressive, with many of the newest paperback releases available for at least a few pounds cheaper than the rrp. I could go out of my way to Waterstones and pay the asking price, or I can pick up the latest release as part of my weekly shop at a discount...as the American's would say "you do the math". New paperbacks are often on a 2 for £7 deal, which considering the rrp is usually around £6.99, represents an excellent saving to be had.

              My local store has a deli counter offering a good selection of fresh pizzas and other fresh dishes from around the world such as Indian and Chinese - the samosas are really good! There is also a fishmonger with a good range of catches and a bakery which always entices me toward it with that alluring smell of freshly-cooked dough.

              There is a very large selection of male and female toiletries, again with many special offers. I no longer have the need to be ripped off in Boots or Superdrug which is nice. The offers are relevant to me in Asda, meaning that they discount things that I am likely to need/want to buy. Toothpaste, shaving foam and shower gel all fall under this category and as I am not brand-loyal in any of these products then there will usually be a deal to be had.

              There is usually a good range of toys in the store and such is their collection that I sometimes wish I was 5 years old again...the Lego looks a lot better these days than when I was little. And at Asda's prices, mum would have no excuses!

              Asda has its own clothing line, George, which caters for men, women and children (more for the latter 2 categories I have to say). I recently bought a plain pullover for £5 and I have to say that the quality was no worse than the £17 pullover that I had bought from M&S a few months previously. I think the rule for me is that if I was something really standard, like a white t-shirt for example, then I would not hesitate to buy it here.
              I believe they were launching a suit last year for something like £40 which is crazy!

              Asda also has a very respectable home and kitchenware section which invariably stocks those little things that you find yourself needing from time to time. They also have a nice selection of cushions and bed linen. I bought a king size duvet cover with 2 pillowcases for the spare room for about £12. In Debenhams you can pay upwards of £50 for a similar set.

              I've got this far down the review and barely even mentioned what I primarily visit Asda for, which is foodstuffs. The fruit and vegetable section is well stocked and the quality is good. Items that I buy quite a lot such as mushrooms and peppers often have their prices "rolled back" and so a pack of mushrooms comes in at around 88p.
              The meat section is also excellent and again the offers are plentiful. They recently had a 3-for-£9 offer across pork, steak and chicken which is excellent value, especially as you can freeze these items for future use.

              I've recently tried to buy a lot more own-brand items and I have to say that I have noticed a big change in my wallet but no so much on my taste buds. From Fruit and Fibre to baked beans, Asda's own brand easily matches up to the much more expensive branded alternative.

              It's worth noting that there are 2 different types of own-brand in Asda. There is the standard Asda brand and then there is the Smart Price range which is the equivalent of Sansbury's Basic or Tesco Value range. Times are not quite hard enough to warrant me switching to the Smart Price stuff just yet, so I cannot really comment on the quality. I am happy with the savings I have made just by switching to the own-brand range but it is nice to know that the store caters for a wide variety of budgets.

              As well as budgets Asda also caters for different nationalities. If you are from abroad and missing home then Asda has some really good ranges of foreign brands including Irish, Indian and Polish.

              I am not a sociable person when I shop and that is probably a good thing as I'm not sure many of the staff in Asda could maintain a decent conversation for any length of time (apologies if you are an Asda employee but I have to call it as I see it). So I often use the self checkouts which are becoming more and more popular in the supermarkets these days. The self checkouts in Asda are usually well monitored by staff and there are always plenty of standard checkouts open for people with larger trolleys.

              So in summary, Asda not only saves me money on my weekly shop, but also has the added convenience of offering a lot more than just food. The offers are great and the own-label products are of a high enough quality for me not to miss the branded alternative.
              I imagine most people use the supermarket which is closest to them, but if you have an Asda nearby and have previously avoided it, I would urge you to give it a try.

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              • Cityandshow.com / Online Shop / 50 Readings / 50 Ratings
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                31.03.2010 12:28
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                Another money savings offering from me to you

                I think its fair to assume that everyone likes a bargain, and the best way to get one on the internet is to shop around and compare prices. With this advice from Money Saving Expert's Martin Lewis echoing in my ears, I set about booking my holiday to Las Vegas last September.

                I usually start looking for a hotel by using a price comparison site such as travelsupermarket, either looking at a specific hotel or at a resort in general. From there I am usually introduced to a number of great websites. I have already reviewed the Viator website that I came across for my excursions, and now I have to recommend CityandShow as a great site to use for hotel bookings.

                My view of holidays is that the more you can save on booking, the more you have to spend when you are there, and that is especially true in the city of sin, Vegas. I stayed at the Mirage in September last year and got 6 nights for £384 using CityandShow, it was the cheapest result on the price comparison site.

                Things can change over time of course, but search today for Vegas hotels next month and you will see CityandShow either at the top, or certainly near the top, of the list for the most competitive quotes. At the fantastic Bellagio resort for example, their price of £135 a night is nearly £30 cheaper than the next lowest quote. Stay 6 nights and that would give you £150 worth of blackjack tokens!

                When you go on to the website, it is well laid out and very professional looking. There is a drop down menu on the left hand side that allows you to choose the city in which you want to search for a hotel. Whilst not as extensive as say Expedia, the site covers a good amount of major cities all around the world - from Mexico City to Hong Kong. The focus does seem to be on the US and their coverage, particularly in Vegas, is very impressive.

                Also on the homepage is a large advert that advertises a really good feature of the site, which is that you only pay £99 deposit for any room and then pay the remainder 4 weeks prior to check in. This is excellent for those working to a budget and will enable most people to be able to book up as soon as they see a great deal.
                Reservation confirmation is immediate via email and you will receive your accommodation voucher in pdf format via email 14 days prior to check in. Just print this off, take it with you and present it to the clerk at the check in desk of your hotel.

                As well as hotel deals you can also book air tours and luxury transfers. At the moment though this is limited to New York City and Las Vegas. The transfers are more expensive than on other sites but then again with only Limos and luxury Sedans as the options, it appears they are appealing to the slightly more upmarket traveller. The air tour selection is rather limited and to be honest I would say you would be better off using the Viator site which I have reviewed previously. There is also a link for "hot tickets" on the homepage but that directs you to a completely different site and I have not made use of this feature.

                For booking hotels, especially in New York and Vegas, this site really is one of the best around in terms of finding the best deals. Navigation is really simple and the selection of hotels is great, especially in the US. All prices that you see include all taxes which is great as anyone that's been to America will testify that you can end up paying a lot more than you thought you were going to. Also when you see a list of prices on a comparison site, if CityandShow isn't the cheapest then this may be due to the fact that the other quotes aren't inclusive of taxes. Vegas in particular has many weird and varied taxes that get added on to a lot of hotel bills upon checkout.

                The company is Atol protected and a member of Abta wish is essential for peace of mind. You won't lose your money or get stranded abroad with these guys. They accept Paypal alongside major credit cards so there are plenty of payment options. Payment can also be spread out when you consider that only a £99 deposit is required.
                There is a dedicated customer service line which I have used and the staff are both knowledgeable and helpful in equal measure. The phone line is manned from 8am - 9pm on weekdays and 9am - 5pm at weekends.

                One thing that they do not mention on the website is that they can offer preferential air fares, and many of these can be secured with a deposit-only payment. When I booked my hotel I gave their customer services a call to see if they could get me a cheap flight. I told them what I had been quoted elsewhere and they were very honest and said that they could not match that and that I should go with the quotation received. This was refreshing honesty given how cut-throat the travel industry can be, especially during these difficult financial times.

                So there you have it, I have now given you Viator for your holiday excursions and now CityandShow for your hotel bookings. I just need to find a cheap website for booking flights and I'm all set!

                One final thing, if you like using your cash back sites then check out cashmachine.co.uk which offers 2% cash back on bookings through CityandShow.

                Happy (cheap) Holidays.

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                • Gran Torino (DVD) / DVD / 51 Readings / 47 Ratings
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                  26.03.2010 12:44
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                  A movie about redemption with an outstanding lead performance

                  Clint Eastwood really is a talented son of a gun isn't he? Not content with being a great actor, he has also turned out to be fairly gifted in the director's chair as well. Then, as if to rub salt into the wounds of us mortals, he then decides to combine the two...and the result is spectacular! Wow, if only he'd produced the movie too he'd be deity-like...damn.
                  Clint has since said that his role as misogynistic Walt Kowalski will be his last in front of the camera. If this turns out to be true then the great man has definitely gone out on a high, and with a character that is a virtual montage of the great Eastwood characters over the years.

                  Set in a downtrodden Detroit suburb, Eastwood plays a cantankerous, ever-so-slightly-racist, retired Ford factory worker. He's lost his wife, his relationship with his children and grandchildren is virtually non-existent and he is haunted by his memories of the Korean war. To make matters worse, his neighbourhood is now dominated by poor Asian (Hmong) immigrants who bring with them both gang violence and an inability to take care of their properties. The world around Walt is in decline and both his race and his links to the once-great Detroit car industry, means that he is nothing more than a relic of a bygone era. His days now consist of sitting on his porch with his trusty dog, Daisy, sipping on beer after beer and snarling at the scene that now confronts him.

                  Walt's young neighbour Thao is pressurised into joining a gang and his initiation test is to steal Walt's prized possession - his 1972 Ford Gran Torino Sport. Walt interrupts the robbery and Thao flees. Later when the gang comes back to try and force Thao away with them, a fight ensues and spills onto Walt's lawn. He is quickly out with his rifle and ushers the brawling mob off his property with the immortal "Get off my lawn". Walt's act of defending his property is misconstrued by Thao's family and he is treated as some sort of local vigilante hero. Thao is forced by his family to work for Walt as repayment for trying to steal his car.
                  From there on the film focuses on the unlikely and heart-warming friendship that develops between Walt and his young Hmong neighbour. His blossoming paternal relationship with Thao is riveting cinema and rather strangely reminded me of Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult as the archetypal "odd couple" in Man and Boy.

                  Eastwood is fantastic as the curmudgeonly racist Walt Kowalski, he has a natural air about him that is commanding and macho. All through his career he has depicted a man that you do not really want to mess with...alluded to with his line "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while that you shouldn't have f****d with? That's me." His portrayal of Walt seems effortless in its delivery and we are drawn towards a man who is so multi faceted. Angry, yet funny, unabashedly racist, yet capable of heartbreaking acts of altruism. He hates seemingly everyone, from his fat sons and their greedy, selfish children to the ever-so-young Catholic priest who plagues him after his wife's death...yet he hates with a charisma that makes him an exceptionally engaging character. Growling and snarling his way through the movie, Eastwood portrays the epitome of the intolerance and prejudice that is rife in modern America.

                  The film was the first piece of acting that young Bee Vang and Ahney Her had ever done. Responding to a casting call for young Hmong actors, these two are absolute rough diamonds with big futures. Bee Vang is superb as the uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin Thao. His adolescent struggle to stay on the right path despite what his peers are doing is something that we can all relate to.
                  Ahney Her is also excellent as the older-than-her years, streetwise Sue. Her relationship with Walt is charming as she turns a blind eye to his racist remarks and looks to educate the old man about her culture and heritage in a way that even he begins to respect.
                  The pair teach Walt that despite his old school views, not all immigrants are lowlifes and gangbangers that he can conveniently bracket under "spooks, gooks and zipperheads".
                  They show him that newcomers can become Americanised and that despite his preconceptions, most are hard-working and hold many of his values close to their own hearts. Indeed the Hmong people are mostly refugees who were run out of their own countries in the far east for their support of the US troops during past conflicts.

                  Indeed this is the message that I took from the film, that it is wrong to take things or people at face value. It is too easy to dismiss Walt early on as a cantankerous old xenophobe, belligerently continuing his existence in a place that his kind have long-since deserted.
                  Equally, grouping Sue and Thao along with the other "zipperhead" delinquents that terrorise the neighbourhood would overlook the inherent good that both posses in equally high measure.
                  Gran Torino tells a great story without ever forcing its moralistic tale upon the viewer. The plot may be fairly contrived and convenient, but Eastwood's performance more than makes up for this. Kowalski, surprisingly, is hard to dislike as I'm sure that for right or wrong he reminds us all of an aged relative with his outdated view on life.

                  Ultimately this is a movie about redemption and the unlikely hero is Walt Kowalski. His paternal relationship with the young kids next door is fascinating in its metamorphosis from contempt to genuine benevolence.
                  Walt does not undergo a transformation per se, he is a baddass at the beginning and does not bend throughout the movie. It is more a case of the kids next door unlocking another side to his personality that we feel has been sequestered for many years. Make no mistake though, he is no Bob Cratchit even though the ghosts of his previous experiences haunt him right up until the end of the movie. Yet there are parallels, and it takes the unlikeliest of characters to point out the errors of his ways. The opportunity for redemption can present itself in the unlikeliest of circumstance and situation.

                  This movie was scandalously overlooked during the award season, receiving not a single nomination from the academy. You would have thought that with their tendency towards nostalgia then Clint would have got a nod for supposedly his last on-screen performance.

                  You can currently pick this movie up for a fiver in Asda and also for £5.99 in the Play.com sale. The extras are nothing special, with 2 featurettes about the American fascination with cars and the Gran Torino itself.
                  I would highly recommend you watch the credits at the end because they are accompanied by Jamie Cullum singing a song called Gran Torino, which was penned for the movie. This is a beautiful composition and well deserving of the Golden Globe nomination it received for best original song.

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                  • More +
                    24.03.2010 16:24
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                    Well worth the investment for a couple of months of healthy skin

                    In the not too distant past I would have scoffed at the idea of paying £25 for a moisturiser. In fact, buying skin treatment of any kind would have felt like a betrayal of my masculinity. Thankfully though the days when toiletries and beauty products were solely a woman's realm are well and truly behind us. And I for one have embraced the new metrosexual man that I have become in recent years. Those guys that mock the new wave are now a dying breed.

                    Obviously behind every man's enlightenment into the new world is a good woman and so I have to thank my now ex-girlfriend for the Clarins gift set I was given all those years ago. I must admit at the time I was disappointed and confused - confused as I was unaware that a company called Clarins made Playstation games...surely she must have not read my xmas wish list properly?

                    Since that fateful day though I have never been without my Clarins Moisturiser Balm (or Baume Hydratant as the French would say). The product was a revelation for me straight away after using it for the first time. I always used to suffer from really dry, at times flaky, skin after showering ever since I was little. However, as soon as I started using this product, my skin was visibly softer, more nourished and the dryness was a thing of the past.
                    I also used to feel a real burning sensation - particularly in my neck - after shaving. But now if I apply the moisture balm directly after shaving then this irritation is quickly relieved.

                    I now use this product every day, sometimes more than once a day. It is the first thing I reach for when I get out of the shower in the morning and after shaving. Housed in a very male-friendly blue and white pot, the 50ml usually lasts me a few months. £25 is fairly expensive I know, but it is difficult to put a price on the removal of self-consciousness and the improvement it makes to your skin is astounding.

                    As I near my thirties (sob), I am increasingly aware of the need to take care of my skin and attempt to stave of the signs of ageing as much as possible. So, whilst keeping my skin moisturised and nourished, the balm now takes on an added benefit of keeping my skin youthful and healthy

                    The bottle is pump-action and so you simply have to press down and the moisturiser appears through a little nozzle. I take a little bit on my index finger and then rub in circles into my skin until it is fully absorbed. One for each cheek, one for the nose and one for the forehead and I am ready to go. The cream is thicker than some of the cheaper brands I have seen on the market and so it takes a good few circles to properly massage it into the skin.
                    The good thing is that you don't need to use too much each time and so one 50ml bottle can last for up to a couple of months.

                    This moisturiser will not leave your skin either feeling or looking greasy providing you have rubbed it in properly. Make sure your face is dry as well before use. I learned the hard way what can happen if it is applied wrong when on holiday I tried to rub it into a sweaty face and ended up with a fetching array of white streaks!

                    The bottle says to apply after shaving, but I would argue that this is a product that can be used at any time. I find after plane travel this product is great because something about the atmosphere and air conditioning on planes really dries out my entire face.
                    The bottle also says that it protects against "environmental aggressions" although it fails to clarify what form this aggression may take and so I will have to reserve judgement on that claim.
                    The moisturiser is dermatologist tested and non-comedogenic - which to you and I means that is doesn't block your pores and thus reduces pimples, blackheads and other unsightly blemishes. I have fortunately never suffered from acne, but a product such as this should help prevent it as it does not block pores.

                    I won't bore you with details about all the ingredients but suffice to say papaya, lemon and plant extracts are among the many listed. Its all a bit scientific for me but from a laypersons point of view, it does what it says on the tin and I find it has a really fresh, natural smell to it.

                    Ladies, if your man is like I was an unlikely to go out and buy this sort of thing for himself then I would urge you to make the first purchase for him. You can pick up Clarins gift sets for around £30-£35 which will include not only this moisturiser but also a few other products which I may review separately.
                    Overall the ClarinsMen range is fantastic, but for me, the moisturising balm is the jewel in the crown.

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                    • Sony Ericsson C702 / Mobile Phone / 41 Readings / 41 Ratings
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                      23.03.2010 16:48
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                      A great, cheap handset that will serve you well for many years

                      It has been a good few years since I have been bothered about what mobile handset is in my pocket. Long gone are the days when I was convinced that having the newest, most expensive handset, with a cool ring tone to match made me a better person and impressed others. Recently my upgrade decisions have been based on which handset would sell for the most when I chucked it on Ebay days after receiving it!

                      I never thought I would say it, but for the past few years my requirement has been that so long as it makes/receives phone calls, sends messages and has an alarm to get me out of the pit in the morning, then its good enough for me. So 2 years ago when my Samsung U700 died in mysterious circumstances (suicide was my verdict), I was presented with 2 or 3 options as a replacement handset. I decided to go for the Sony Ericsson C702 and it has served me very well ever since.

                      ~Ergonomics~

                      The phone has a really good sturdy feel to it. It's not the lightest on the market but that's not to say that it is a burden in the pocket. The C702 is finished in 2 tone black and silver which makes it look quite sleek. The rubbery material on the back of the phone makes it really easy to grip. On the front of the handset there is a nice big screen which dominates about two thirds of the phone's size. The buttons beneath it are the only real issue that I have with the design in that they are simply too small and too close together for my big sausage fingers. Even 2 years into using it, I still occasionally hit the wrong button which is frustrating.
                      Overall, Sony as a company very rarely produce anything that is poorly designed and so for that alone I would give it 8/10

                      ~Ease of use~

                      I am quite technically-minded, I very rarely even look at an instruction manual before starting to use something (it's a male pride thing). But even I was stumped for a hours after I got this phone as to how to remove the back to get the battery in - great start to our relationship! However, this is the most hassle I have had with getting it to work over the 2 years. The menus are well laid out and navigation is an absolute breeze. I'd happily give this phone to my mum as a present, that's how confident I am that even the biggest technophobe could quickly get to grips with it.

                      ~Functionality~

                      Despite having got this phone as a basic handset, it is surprisingly packed with features well beyond the standard calling and messaging. There is a built in media player and standard storage of 160mb which means you can easily fit around 40 mp3s on it. You can also buy extra storage but as I have an Ipod, I haven't really had the need for it. Support of uploaded music also means that you can create a ringtone that is something different from the standard selection that comes with the phone - which are quite poor.
                      The phone has a built in radio that can be used with the hands-free kit that comes with the phone. The quality isn't exactly DAB digital quality, but then again you wouldn't expect it to be. I can happily sit at football and listen to the scores and commentary from elsewhere without interruption or loss of service.
                      A Cybershot camera with 3.2 megapixels and a built in flash is perfect for capturing decent quality images whilst on the go. It is not too many years back that even a standalone digital camera would not have that sort of spec. You can also record video although the quality isn't great and so it is not something that I have used extensively.

                      The phone has a built in Sat Nav (provided by Vodafone) which I only discovered recently! It's not something that I would be using in my car, but more than useful for navigating on foot around a town centre for example. Beware that using the GPS will drain the battery a lot quicker than standard phone usage.
                      Google Maps is also built into the phone, however I used it once and it could only find my location to the nearest 5000 metres so I declined to use it again.

                      There is a built in browser which again is powered by Vodafone which I have found to be quite slow, but I always manage to get the information that I am looking for eventually.

                      There are 2 games built into the handset which are surprisingly good. Fotoquest fishing sees you trying your hand at underwater photography whilst Brain Juice is like a real budget version of the brain training games you find on the Nintendo DS.

                      The C702 also has many other features that you wouldn't have got on your very first Nokia all those years ago. Bluetooth, video calling, hands free are all here as is the torch function (which uses the flash as a constant light) which I have used a surprising amount of times.

                      ~Longevity~

                      As I said, I have had this handset for 2 years now and it is still going strong. The battery life is just as good as when I first got it and I have had no problems with the phone freezing or turning itself off. In fact it has been dropped, kicked, bounced and even landed on when I was knocked off my bike whilst cycling home from work! The paint has become slightly chipped in the corners and there is a slight mark on the screen where I landed on it, but other than that it is still in great condition. Bearing in mind this is a phone that is used daily and I am not particularly careful with it, it has lasted fantastically well. I have had numerous phones in the past that would pack up if they were sneezed on, so this handset has been a breath of fresh air.
                      I am a bit of a gadget-head and will soon be moving on to the iphone, but rather than get rid of this handset, I expect it to serve as a trusty backup for many years to come.

                      ~Issues~

                      I hate to pick any holes in something that has lasted so well and I got as a free upgrade, but in the interests of writing a balanced review I will go through the very small number of issues I have encountered.
                      I had trouble getting the back off when I first got the phone, but I am not sure whether this was the phone being difficult or me being incompetent?!
                      The keys are a little on the small side and a bit close together. Usually I can get around this but if I have had a few then the chances of you being able to understand any texts that I send are minimal.
                      There is a shortkey to the internet services on the main menu which I don't like as it is far too easy to accidentally lean on it and access the web which means running the risk of incurring browsing charges that you were not expecting.

                      ~Overall~

                      This is a great phone that is easy for anyone to use. It is not the newest phone on the market so you can probably get one dirt cheap or even as a free upgrade. It may not have the latest features but it does have plenty of functions above and beyond just calling and texting. I've had 2 happy years with it and can't recommend it highly enough.

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                      • Viator.com / Online Shop / 55 Readings / 51 Ratings
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                        19.03.2010 16:22
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                        Use this site before you go to ensure you get the most out of your holiday

                        So you've spent ages researching your perfect holiday destination and finally handed over the credit card details and the countdown has begun. But don't be fooled into thinking that the next part is getting on the plane. If it is, then the chances are you have not yet come across the website Viator.com. I discovered this site a couple of years ago when planning a trip to Vegas and since then it has become my go-to site for tour-planning.

                        The website is an invaluable aid for booking tours, day trips, and for generally finding out what there is to see and do in more or less any holiday destination across the world. Now you may be thinking "well ok, but there are other websites that offer these services such as Expedia etc". So to back up my argument, I give you the following:

                        Lowest price guarantee - if you find the same tour or excursion elsewhere then Viator will refund the difference. There are also no hidden costs which you will find in some places. The price you see is the price you pay, simples.

                        Great cancellation policy - You can cancel any booking up to 7 days beforehand without charge. You can also change the date of the tour or excursion without incurring any cost. This is an exceptionally helpful feature as we all know how holiday plans can change even up until the last minute.

                        Customer care - There is a dedicated email form which I have used before and the response time is generally within 12 hours. Also there is a call centre which is open 7 days a week. It is based in America (West Coast) so the hours are 3pm until 1am (UK time) which is actually pretty good for us Brits because we can call in the evening.

                        Unbiased reviews - All of the excursions that I have booked through here have had independent consumer reviews (and we all like those). Most of them also had photos from people who have been on the tours, which really allows you to get a feel for what you are buying into. We can all go into a travel agent and be promised the world, but getting the real opinion from people who have actually been on these tours is really invaluable I have found.

                        The site itself is so easy to use and really nicely laid out. It makes it very simple to choose the country and city that you want to search for, you can even choose the specific dates that you will be travelling. You can then sort all the results by topsellers/traveller rating/price, or even break it down into activity types e.g shows or walking tours. As an example, if you select New York there are 114 results in total - you can book an airport transfer for £6.55 all the way up to a private helicopter tour of Manhattan for £162.86.
                        Each search result tells you the duration of the tour and tells you how many traveller reviews and photographs have been submitted to the site.

                        There is a ton of special offers on the site at any given time and with each offer they tell you how much the would normally cost and therefore how much you are saving.

                        On each tour there is a really helpful and thorough description which really lets you know exactly what you will be getting for your money. This is summed up at the end of the review with a "tour highlights" section. Beneath this is more helpful information such as any minimum height or age or even if there is a dress code!

                        Once you have chosen the tour for you, simply select a date and add the number of travellers and Viator will confirm the availability for your selected date and add it to your shopping cart.

                        Payment is really simple as well once items have been added to the shopping cart. There are 3 easy steps which involve reviewing the order, secure payment and then printing your vouchers.

                        Payment is by credit card, they accept Visa, AMEX and MasterCard. Within the payment section you add your personal details, including your hotel if the excursion involves a pick up/drop off. There is also the option to add the details of any air miles or airline equivalent schemes that you may be part of.

                        Other nice features of the site are that you can sign up for travel news and deals for a certain location. Simply enter your email address and get ready to receive a wealth of useful information. You can also buy gift certificates which are a great idea to give to someone before they go on holiday rather than just handing over a wedge of foreign currency which will undoubtedly just get mixed up with the currency they already have.

                        I love travelling and when I am away I try and ensure that I never come home thinking "I wish I'd...." Viator really helps me to plan out a holiday and also gives me the peace of mind that my tours are both pre-booked and through a reliable, reputable company.
                        On my last trip to Vegas I booked a helicopter tour over the city for 2 people at a cost of £80 - you can't really argue with that sort of deal.

                        From my own personal experiences, I cannot stress enough how helpful, reliable and cost-saving this website is. Try it out for your summer holiday needs and I'm sure you will find the same.

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                        • More +
                          16.03.2010 14:23
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                          An excellent choice for a bite to eat on the Thames

                          The Real Greek is a chain that offers a tapas-style menu of Greek/Mediterranean dishes at very reasonable prices. They currently have 7 restaurants all within zones 1-2 of central London (Hoxton, Bankside, Putney, Marylebone, Covent Garden, Westfield and Spitalfields).

                          The first restaurant was opened in Hoxton in 1999 and the 2 most recent, Westfield and Spitalfields opened in 2008. It says a lot for a restaurant business in this day and age to be able to expand over 10 years in such a competitive industry, especially in a city like London which is littered with the carcases of other failed eateries.

                          The location I am reviewing is the Bankside restaurant because it is my favourite. A short 10 minute walk from London Bridge Station (Jubilee, Northern and Mainline terminal) and right on the river Thames, the Bankside restaurant is in a prime location. Perfect for summer evenings sipping a cold Mythos on the terrace, or a cosy shelter in the colder months from the wind and rain that course the river outside. This place really is a venue for all seasons. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre is next door and the Tate Modern is about a 5 minute walk. The fact that it has held its own in such a prime location speaks volumes for the quality and value of the restaurant. Within 100 yards you will find a Nandos, Wagamamas and a Pizza Express, not to mention 2/3 pubs that also serve food - alternatives are not in short supply.

                          Inside the Bankside restaurant you will find soothing lighting and plenty of tables although they do recommend booking in advance. There is a well stocked bar which is perfect if you arrive early and are waiting for your dining partner(s). There is a really laid back feel to the place, the staff are not too eager and I have never felt rushed which is something that other establishments could really learn from.

                          So why choose the Real Greek over the various other chains nearby? Well I think the answer to that question is the key that has kept the chain successful and growing over the past decade. Firstly, their product is unique. Perhaps not on a micro level (after all, you can get pitta bread and humus in a lot of places) but as an overall package. Secondly, the price is very competitive, which is vital in this city for a lot of reasons. For the indigenous population in the grip of the worst recession in decades, value for money is a key factor. Also for the hoards of tourists swarming the city, ensuring their Euros, Yens and Dollars stretch as far as possible.

                          What is a Real Greek experience like? For those that are expecting to finish their meal by getting up, dancing around and smashing their plates to a soundtrack of Zorba the Greek, I'm afraid you will be disappointed. The chain has pitched itself a little higher than that. Also if you are hoping for authentic Greek waiters named Stelios or Stavros, then again you will leave unsatisfied. The Real Greek is essentially a chain after all and so the operation is slick and proficient, if a little impersonal at times as opposed to the family-run taverna experience you may have had on holiday.
                          I don't visit this restaurant expecting to be blown away by a service which goes above and beyond. The atmosphere, whilst never vibrant, is at least on a par with its local peers, if a little more relaxed. It's not somewhere I would consider for a night to celebrate something special, probably not even for a romantic meal either. No, I visit because I know exactly what I am getting, which is reasonably priced, honest food of a predictably above-average quality. My opinion is obviously shared as there are usually plenty of fellow diners when I have visited (this could be because of those often generous discount vouchers available online which I will refer to later).

                          So lets talk about the food on offer. It is possible to split the menu into 3 sections; cold meze, hot meze and souvlaki.

                          Cold Meze is very much your classic Mediterranean bread and dips combination. The usual suspects are all present, hummus, tzatziki, taramasalata etc. These are great as a starter and will not break the bank at £3.85 each. The only slight deception is that these do not come with bread and so you will have to order this for an extra £2.25. This may seem a bit of a liberty, but the portion size is easily enough for 2 to share.
                          I am a big fan of flatbread and hummus and the dishes at the Real Greek are easily some of the best I have had in London. The hummus is not soggy and has a really good chickpea flavour, whilst the bread is easily flavoursome enough to eat on its own.

                          Hot Meze is very much the classic tapas-style food. Fairly small portions meaning that you generally order around 2/3 dishes and a rich and varied assortment of choices. The hot Meze dishes range in price from around £4-6 which is slightly on the expensive side given the size of the portions. I have not tried every dish but I can certainly recommend the following 3 which covers the price spectrum;

                          Tiropitakia - lovely samosa-like filo pastry parcels with a spinach and feta filling. The portion consists of 3 I believe. The feta is fresh, rich and strong, offset nicely by the spinach and leek (£3.95)

                          Lamb Kefte - essentially a "meat lolly", with a really nice blend of herbs and spices (£4.95)

                          Salt Cod - Really soft, beer battered fish. This dish can be very salty so make sure you ask for tartar dip, otherwise your drink will be gone in no time! (£5.95)

                          Souvlaki is the signature dish of the restaurant and a real authentic Greek favourite. The best way to describe a souvlaki would be to liken it to a kebab - although a lot nicer than the greasy mess you chomp down on after a night on the sauce! With a choice of lamb, pork, chicken, lamb or halloumi, wrapped in a lovely soft flatbread, and topped with a really tasty tzatziki and tomato relish. I have very rarely been disappointed when I have had a souvlaki and a meal at the Real Greek is incomplete for me without one. They use British meat which is always succulent and perfectly cooked over their charcoal grill.

                          Sides and salads are available for around £3 but to be honest, you can get chips anywhere and being an extremely keen carnivore, it is very rarely you will hear me ordering a salad!

                          There is also a good selection of desserts, however I am usually so full from my meaty main courses that I don't think I have ever even asked for the menu. I do know that there are a mixture of traditional Greek favourites such as Greek yoghurt and Baklava alongside the more generic ice cream and sorbet options. Desserts are around £4-5 which is a little on the expensive side in my opinion.

                          The Real Greek has a good wine selection with plenty or reds and whites to choose from and prices in the £4-6 bracket for a small-large glass. I usually go for a bottle of Mythos beer which I first discovered a few years ago on a boys holiday in Cyprus. Peroni is also usually on tap which makes a fine substitute.

                          So who would enjoy the Real Greek and why? This chain has something to offer most people. Although I personally really enjoy the meat selection, there are more than adequate vegetarian alternatives. The restaurants themselves are usually filled with a real spectrum of people indicating the universal appeal. Not overly posh, and definitely not fine dining whilst at the same time a slight step up from say Nandos.
                          Going here is a safe option because I know what I am getting, I know there are a few dishes from which I can choose and I roughly know the price and the experience that I will get.

                          I have noticed that the restaurants are busier recently and that could well be because they nearly always feature on the voucher codes websites. Indeed if you visit the website itself there is currently a deal for 2 people which includes 7 dishes and 2 drinks for £25 which is very reasonable. Simply sign up and print the voucher which is valid until 31st March, so be quick.

                          Being able to eat as much or as little as you like is a big advantage as it makes the restaurant a good choice for the lunchtime crowd as well as evening diners. The food is usually ready fairly quickly as well which makes it ideal for a pre-theatre meal - especially if you are only heading next door to the Globe.

                          In summary, if you are in the big smoke and fancy a decent meal for a reasonable price in a great location, then head down to Bankside - and don't forget your voucher!

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                            11.03.2010 16:21
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                            A great Mexican restaurant with massive menus!

                            They say that variety is the spice of life, and when it comes to food I could not be more in agreement. When I am at home or even away on holiday/business, I love to have a good choice of different places to eat. In fact I would say that having more than one of every culinary type in a particular area is best. Firstly it gives the consumer choice and secondly it means that establishments have to maintain high standards so as not to lose business to direct competition.

                            The Clapham Junction area has a good choice of Chinese, Thai, Indian and more than enough Italian restaurants alongside the obligatory McDonalds and Nandos. Until recently, however, there was something missing - a good quality Mexican restaurant.

                            I was delighted when Cucarachas rose from the ashes of a former patisserie in late 2009. Having googled the name, I was slightly concerned as the name (Spanish) translated to English means "cockroaches". Despite this, I decided to give the place a try and have since returned on many occasions.

                            The restaurant is not the biggest place and can seat probably around 60 people at full capacity. The décor, whilst warm and welcoming, doesn't feel authentically Mexican, rather North-African souk. The lighting is fairly low and each candle is table-lit which sets the mood nicely. I have been here on a romantic night out and with a group of friends and the venue has been suitable for both.

                            The menus really are something to behold. Both the food and drinks menus are A3-sized and double sided. Gordon Ramsey would turn the airwaves blue if he was presented with a menu this size. I personally think it is very excessive to have this level of information overload as soon as you sit down. Most restaurants will have a licensed bar, but very few deem it necessary to list every liquor located behind said bar. On top of that there are a mind-blowing array of cocktails all individually listed with their constituent ingredients. I have to say that their cocktails are actually very good, but if you are not a decisive as I am then you really could be sat staring for hours!

                            The decisions on food are not made any easier. 2 sides containing more or less every conceivable Mexican, or even non-Mexican dish. The usual suspects are there such as Burritos, Tacos, Fajitas and Nachos. But then they have things liked mixed grills and Chile Con Carnes. It really does seem like no ideas for the menu were turned down when it was being decided what to serve.

                            Am I saying less is more? Well not being a learned critic nor an established restaurateur, far be it for me to criticise the size of a menu. I know Gordon has gone nuts on Kitchen Nightmares when he feels the menu is oversized, but then again he does like to have a strop. I'm quite decisive as I said, and I know what I like so the menu could be the size of a napkin or the size of the wall in front of me and I wouldn't have much trouble choosing. The only problem I have is that with so much on offer, I often feel I am missing out on something. I've been here about once a month since first discovering this place and so by that logic, I should have tried everything that "I would eat" by about 2013.

                            What I have managed to try I have been very impressed with, both in terms of size and quality. The Nachos should really be listed as bottomless as I am yet to finish the amount that is served. The mains are no different with plenty of flour tortillas and enough filling to make each one burst. The meat is always of a high quality and cooked to a real melt-in-your-mouth perfection and with each dish you have a choice of meats. Most dishes come with refried beans and rice which offsets the burrito/enchilada/taco etc very well.
                            As for the sides, the fries and garlic bread with cheese are both very good although if you can eat a starter, main and sides then you have a larger food intake capacity than I.

                            The service is usually good, although can be hit and miss at times. The food is usually exactly what we ordered right but the bill has either had something missing (yay) or something added (boo) on more or less every occasion. It is always quickly rectified with a smile and to be honest it has become one the quirks of this place. On the first occasion we went they had not got their card machine set up and so we were offered a round of shots to make up for the fact that we all had to traipse outside to the Link ATM.

                            The bill is always very reasonable (once we've made sure it's correct of course). I don't recall dinner coming to more than around £20 a head. This will always be after we have had a couple of drinks, a starter and a main course. You really can't argue with that (well you could, but you'd be wrong).

                            So in summary, if you ever find yourself South West of the "dirty old river" then you could do a lot worse than give this place a try. When we first visited about a week after opening we were convinced it would be closed within a month due to the massive menu and difficult economic environment. The fact that it is seemingly still going strong 6 months later, and often busy enough to require a reservation, shows how little I know about the restaurant business. But hey, I know what I like, and I definitely like Cucarachas.

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                            • General / Discussion / 39 Readings / 37 Ratings
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                              10.03.2010 13:14
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                              All about myself

                              Well my creative juices have run a bit dry at the moment so I thought I would give you all a little insight into myself. It's not enough for identity theft, but it's a good start...

                              Name: Steve

                              Age: 27 - and getting older by the day :-(

                              Height: 6'1

                              Eye colour: Blue with a burst of yellow around my pupils - no really

                              Location: London

                              Brothers or sisters: 2 younger sisters.

                              Kids: None as yet, would like them at some point though

                              Right handed or left handed: Lefty all the way.

                              Occupation: Finance - although its not my fault we're in this mess!

                              Your perfect pizza: Domino's mighty meaty - meat-tastic!

                              Goal I would like to achieve this year: Pass my IMC exam, get a new job, get no more points on my drivers licence :-S

                              Thoughts when first waking up: Surely its not 7 already?!

                              Do you Smoke: Occasionally, social smoker, worst kind.

                              Do you Swear: Far too much, not in my reviews though :-)

                              Education: Degree in English literature - get me!

                              Do you play an Instrument: No, but I want to learn the guitar or the piano in the next couple of years

                              What are you listening to right now: I'm liking Paloma faith at the moment, but I like loads of different music

                              Last thing you ate: Fruit n Fibre, best way to start the day

                              How is the weather right now: Grey and manky - roll on spring

                              Last person you talked to on the phone: Some guy I am selling a Stereophonics ticket to

                              First thing you notice about the opposite sex: I always notice a pretty face first

                              Favourite holiday destination: I love America, probably Vegas as it is a real adults playground. Love NYC as well though

                              Last movie you watched: As good as it gets - love that movie

                              Last book you read: Financial Market Regulations - part of my Investment management study program, and yes it is as boring as it sounds

                              Favourite Movie: I did love the original Star Wars trilogy as a youngster, I like films too much to name but one so I'll list a couple...Office Space, Garden State, Crash...there are loads more that I love.

                              Favourite TV show: At the moment I am liking Glee, Trueblood, How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory and the Vampire Diaries. I reckon my favourite of all time would be Cheers

                              Favourite Book: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe - actually made me cry, beautifully written

                              Favourite Animal: I love Pugs, their squashed up little faces and heavy breathing are really cute!

                              Favourite alcoholic Drink: A nice cold beer on a hot day is usually just what the doctor ordered. Kronenberg Blanc is lovely. If I am feeling posh then Canadian club and ginger ale

                              Favourite food: I do like a good Chinese, although the fish and chips at the Roker hotel in Sunderland is immense also

                              Favourite dessert: A cheesecake of some sort I reckon, or apple crumble and custard

                              Favourite sports team: Sunderland (fanatic), I am also into American Football and my team is the Pittsburgh Steelers

                              Ever fired a gun: Yes, a couple actually in Vegas, including the "Dirty Harry" Magnum. And I have the T shirt full of MP5 bullet holes to prove what a sniper's eye I have!

                              Do you like to travel by plane: I love plane travel, although I am quite tall and so it is a bit of a squash on longer journeys

                              Do you have a tattoo: No, I am not against them but it would have to be something that really meant a lot and I have nothing in mind at the moment.

                              Favourite place to hangout: The sofa, feet up, PS3 on - bliss. Or the Stadium of Light, Sunderland

                              What are you afraid of: Failure

                              Famous crush: Kate Beckinsale, the woman is beautiful

                              Last thing you do before bed: Set my phone alarm :-(

                              Last film you watched at the cinema: I think it was New Moon. Used to have a Cineworld unlimited card, but if you read my review you will know why I gave this up and why I really dislike the cinema these days.

                              Car you drive: Vauxhall Astra, 1.9 Cdti, 150 BHP - I'm a boy racer at heart with a need for speed - as Nottinghamshire police will testify!

                              Favourite comedian: Frankie Boyle, so wrong and yet so funny

                              Favourite hobby: I love my Saturday football and also I am really into digital photography, hoping to get my website set up this year

                              Favourite day of the year: My birthday, because like this article...its all about me!

                              I gave myself a 5* rating, is that egotistical? :-)

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                                03.03.2010 16:05
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                                A must see when in Vegas

                                Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada is a place brimming with so many sights and sounds that it can be a logistical nightmare to try and fit everything into one holiday. Personally I have been twice and I will still go back and experience a lot of things for the first time, such is the variety.
                                In Vegas you really can spend as much or as little as you want - Fine dining to fast food, exotic car hire to the Deuce bus, high-roller suites to the 25c slot machines - the experience will differ from person to person depending on budget.

                                There are, however, a few attractions in Vegas which should undoubtedly be visited by the richest roller down to the poorest pauper. This is because these attractions cost absolutely nothing to go and enjoy. Such attractions include the Vegas sign, the fountains outside the Bellagio and the subject of this review, the Volcano at the Mirage.

                                I stayed in the Mirage in September 2009 and so this little beauty was right outside my window (literally). For those staying elsewhere the address is 3400 Las Vegas Boulevard South. If you are more familiar with the Vegas layout then the Mirage Volcano is in between Treasure Island and Caesars Palace, and just across the road from Harrah's and the Venetian. The volcano erupts nightly from 6pm until midnight and is standing room only with the general public vying for the best spots on the Strip up to 15 minutes before scheduled performances. The hotel rooms at the front of the Mirage have an excellent panoramic view of the performance, as I'm sure do the rooms at Harrah's and the Venetian. If you are just passing by for a watch then I would recommend getting there early as it is a much better experience close up than it is behind a sea of heads and cameras.

                                The Volcano is set in the huge lagoon that occupies the space outside the front of the Mirage and fits in well with the hotel's Polynesian theme. By day, a serene and tranquil waterfall. By night, a venomous, roaring inferno. The Volcano itself is 54ft high and although I have never seen a real volcano, this one looks pretty realistic (albeit on a small scale).
                                The volcano has been a mainstay on the Vegas strip since the 1989. It underwent a $25m transformation a couple of years ago and reopened in Decmeber 2008. This led me to wonder, surely something that spits out fire once an hour can't be upgraded that much right? Wrong.


                                ~Audio~
                                The Mirage enlisted Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian music composer Zakir Hussain to compose the score to which the volcano erupts. I found the soundtrack really added to the atmosphere and builds up to an awesome climax. This is helped in no small part by the fact that there are 60 sound cabinets dotted around the lagoon which gives surround sound a whole new meaning! To add extra audio realism, the volcano sounds are actually recordings of real volcano eruptions. I can only describe the soundtrack in terms of the imagery that it conjured up for me. I felt like I was at some sort of South Pacific tribal ceremony, wondering who or what was due to be sacrificed to the Volcano (sadly it wasn't any of those Mexicans that hand out the porno cards on the Strip!)

                                ~Visual~
                                The Mirage turned to the company behind the fountains of the Bellagio, WET. They have created a truly unique visual experience and a far cry from the eruptions of yesteryear. Using state of the art technology, the performances are carefully choreographed - flame on demand if you will. Whereas the fire would previously come mainly from the top of the volcano, there are now eruptions all over the lagoon from strategically placed "fireshooters" capable of sending fireballs 12 feet into the air. If this weren't enough, you can also see the "molten lava" slowly trickling down the side of the volcano. It really is a visual feast as the smoke and fire is belched 100ft out of the water and into the Vegas sky.

                                You can genuinely feel the heat on your face and the ground around you shaking as the carefully choreographic pyrotechnic display builds to a crescendo. The beat quickens, the music gets a little louder, the anticipation in the crowd is tangible. Then with a climactic roar and eruption of flame from the volcano itself, the spectacle is over. It may have only lasted about 5 minutes but the memories will last a lot longer.

                                ~Overall~
                                Vegas is a place full of unique attractions. Nowhere else on earth would a dancing fountain display be located around half a mile from a pyrotechnic volcano eruption spectacle. If you are in the city then it would be criminal not to go and see the Mirage volcano. It'll cost you absolutely nothing which is great but it is also on virtually every "must see/do" list that you will read about Sin City.
                                If you time it right you can catch the dancing Bellagio fountains either just before or afterwards as they are a 10 minute walk away.

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