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johnpeter50
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    • Junior - Royksopp / Music Album / 12 Readings / 11 Ratings
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      10.05.2011 16:01
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      A solid effort by the Norwegian duo.

      The performance duo of Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge are probably best known for their downtempo dance sound and remarkable 'ad music' history: from the 'T-Mobile' giant billboard baby hit 'So Easy' to the recent caveman 'Geico' commercial accompanied by 'Remind Me'.

      Their third full-length outing, 'Junior', is the upbeat counterpart to the more subdued sequel 'Senior'. But does it come close to matching their platinum selling debut, or fail to make its mark entirely?

      1. Happy Up Here
      The primary offering from the album. I can't help but smile whenever I hear it; it's catchy, upbeat and immensely playful. Many months after its initial debut it still feels as fresh and vibrant as the first listen. Just as 'Triumphant' established the tone of 'The Understand', 'Happy Up Here' is a great opening number that defines the spirit of 'Junior'.

      2. The Girl & The Robot
      A surprisingly dark, yet anthemic track. Some people will be put off by its traditional A-B structure and pop-inspired sound. Personally? I love it! It's grown on me like no other Royksopp track has before. Plus it's always nice to see the guys break into new territory - even if it's the "nu-rave eletro sound" so prevalent right now.

      3. Vision One
      What can I say? I loved the original 'Sing a Song' with Eri Nobuchika, I loved the instrumental track, and it should be no shock to find I love Anneli Drecker's vocal mix too. It's a fantastic idea to throw down a 'classic' Royksopp track right after "The Girl & The Robot".

      4. This Must Be It
      It's strange how this has divided fans. Some are calling it the best track on the album - others say it's the worst Royksopp track of all time. I personally feel it falls somewhere in-between these two extremes.

      Certainly, Karin Dreijer-Andersson has a "love it or hate it" quality, and while the track shifts along at a pleasant pace it never seems fully realized. It sounds somewhat misplaced on the album, and feels too reminiscent of material from 'The Understanding'.

      It misses the usual spine-tingling spark of traditional Royksopp tracks, but fails to fill the void left in its absence.

      5. Royksopp Forever
      If Jean-Michel Jarre were secretly asked to record a track for Royksopp, this would be the result! Initially, the cool '80s electro vibe feels distant and removed. However, after several listens, it slowly begins to reveal its beauty.

      Take the dramatic shift around the three minute mark - it definitely takes me back to the awe-inspiring drop in "Royksopp's Night Out", and reminds me of the beat-magic performed on the debut album.

      6. Miss It So Much
      Another track that I'm slowly falling for. Lykke Li's vocal is so smooth and enveloping you can't help but be swept along. The lyrics could be lifted from 'The Understanding' verbatim but, unlike 'This Must Be It', the song is well assimilated into the album: the strong "retro" keyboards and increased emphasis on sonic layering puts this song at the forefront of 'Junior's repertoire.

      7. Tricky Tricky
      I've been back and forth on this one half a dozen times already! On the one hand, it does very little to entertain me during the first four an a half minutes - but then suddenly the track explodes into life with gloriously over-processed chaos!

      I think it's a track ripe for remixing, with the late-stage vocoding efforts taking Karin Dreijer's voice to a whole new level!

      8. You Don't Have A Clue
      This feels like an uneasy "transitional" track. I could easily believe this was conceived very shortly after 'The Understanding'.

      It's a shame really, because it's a sweet little song. I love the fact it's got lots going on with the vocal and I can easily believe 'You Don't Have A Clue' will find itself a lot of fans further down the line.

      9. Silver Cruiser
      A throwback to 'Melody A.M.' in many ways; it's amazing to hear just how comfortable it sits in the midst of 'Junior'. I just wish it evolved more - four minutes doesn't seem long enough for the track to completely flourish. Again, perhaps an elongated live outing will solidify my true feelings toward it.

      10. True To Life
      If I'm wholly honest, this isn't Royksopp at their best. The track is too non-descript, and leaves the latter half of the album punctured with an emotional void. I can hear an encouraging thread within the song, but I simply don't believe 'True To Life' ranks as anything substantially more than 'filler'.

      11. It's What I Want
      Another track that's had me going back and forth for the past eighteen months. I'm not entirely convinced by the melody, and the boys' vocal attempts leave me disappointed. If anything, it's left me craving for a return of Erlend Oye's calming coo. Hardly an album low note, but not the daring blow-out finale I'd been hoping for.

      (12. Were You Ever Wanted - Japanese Edition Only)
      What a shame this wasn't included in the European release. Yes, this is what's come to be known as 'Korene' and it certainly sounds better on CD than its original YouTube footage outing.

      Again, it feels like another track conceived soon after 'The Understanding'; it's good, but again, it still feels like the Royksopp of five years ago.

      SUMMARY
      Okay, as a fan I love the album - there's no getting away from that. However, looking at it objectively, 'Junior' is not Royksopp's best work. I think the problem is it's too chaotic; it tries too hard to appease fans of the first two albums and yet doesn't move far enough forward musically for the sound to really "develop" into something that works on its own merits.

      Ultimately, the album is a pick and choose affair - no two fans will enjoy the same two tracks - resulting in a very good, but not great, LP.

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    • More +
      09.05.2011 14:51
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      If you want to be touch-typing in under an hour, KAZ is the answer.

      INTRODUCTION
      With the boom of the digital age, it's more important than ever to be able to communicate within virtual realms. One essential skill is the ability to touch type. Not only do employers crave a worker who can type over forty words per minute, but everything from essay writing to forum posts take half the time when you can think and type at the same speed.

      But it isn't an easy skill to acquire; after the hundredth 'ASDF' drill it won't only be your wrists waning; your interest in the learning process itself will plummet too. There's really only so many four letter anagrams you can type before giving up seems the natural course of action.

      So imagine just for one second, a scenario where you could learn to touch-type in 90 minutes; not just half a dozen letters, but the entire alphabet in less than two hours. 'KAZ', or 'Keyboard A-Z', claims just this - the ability to master the keyboard whatever your age or aptitude. Having garnered an impressive 1 million users worldwide, and with clients including the 'Open University' and 'LearnDirect', can it really be possible to touch type in 90 minutes?

      BACKGROUND
      'KAZ' was a system created by a professional team responsible for producing over 55 RSA/NVQ level computer and office skills courses; that's 18,000 students in training centres all over the country per annum!

      The 'Open University' trialled 'KAZ' over the span of a year on one of their largest courses. The result? They have since provided KAZ Typing Tutor to all students and tutors - that's over 7 years now!

      HOW IT WORKS
      KAZ's key to accelerated learning is said to be Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), engaging a multitude of brain senses all at once. Rather than learning through constant repetition of abstract non-connected words, KAZ uses a total of 5 short phrases (11 words total) covering the entire keyboard in a single 90 minute session; it really is as simple as that!

      There are no 'beginner', 'intermediate' or 'advanced' modes because there's no need for them - you have control over the keyboard within minutes, not weeks. There are no gimmicky games, performance graphs or quiz modes, because adding them would be educational overkill.

      In fact, KAZ is completely different to any other touch-typing software I've ever used; its sheer simplicity may be disconcerting at first, but it doesn't take long to settle into your first and, theoretically last, lesson.

      MY EXPERIENCE
      I first used version 14 of the software on the Windows PC platform approximately a decade ago. Until that point, I'd become a proficient 'hunt and peck' typist averaging 35 wpm - not too shabby by all accounts. The reason I'd become so expert at using this system was my inability to find a tutorial package which came anywhere close to teaching me how to touch-type without giving up half way through.

      Then, one day purely by chance, I came across KAZ being sold on a popular TV sales network. The claims offered seemed very bold to me, so rather than buying the package from the television, I decided to do a little internet research first.
      After reading a positive cavalcade of feedback, I eventually decided to buy my copy from amazon.co.uk for a very reasonable price - roughly half what the shopping channel wanted for it at £13!

      Upon arrival, I set aside the requisite 90 minutes and duly performed the session from start to finish. Ultimately, being both computer literate and fairly-well educated, I managed to complete the lesson in 75 minutes, although I wouldn't be surprised if total novices took a good two hours instead.

      The lesson takes a very streamlined approach, teaching you what you need to know in a pragmatic fashion minus the filler and fluff; it's a refreshing change from the other typing tutors that still have you repeatedly typing out 'SAD', 'DAD' and 'FAD' after hours of effort.

      Okay, you won't be FLUENT after the lesson concludes; far from it. I found it frustrating to suddenly be typing sentences at a snail-like 12wpm. But I persisted with the practice mode for several weeks and soon found my rate begin to rise. In fact, after a couple of months I'd managed to surpass my previous record and then some!

      Currently I type approximately 60 words per minute (depending on conditions) and have never returned to my old 'hunt and peck' method. Without question, this is down to the KAZ method and its rapid teaching technique.

      DISLIKES
      There's not much to dislike about KAZ; in all honesty, the experience with the software was remarkably brief considering, and the CD-ROM has spent most of its life sat at the back of my shelf.

      While I enjoyed the straightforward, 'no-messing around' approach, I realise many people don't. Those who need fluffy reassurance tasks and constant hand-holding may feel the package doesn't support them after the initial 90 minute session.

      The practice mode will certainly help you build up speed, but you may find it gets quite tedious after a short time. I admit that I found myself becoming bored with the training mode too; but then I felt confident enough to practice my new-found skills outside of the package and, unsurprisingly, real world exercises felt far more rewarding than throwing keystrokes at a simulation!

      ISSUES / PROBLEMS
      In recent years, it seems a few people have started to experience problems with the KAZ installation process; reports have emerged, for example, about compatibility issues with the latest builds of Mac OSX.

      This seems a remarkable shame, especially when you consider the software itself is just a Flash based application and shouldn't require any special dynamic link libraries or executables to run correctly.

      While I didn't have any issue whatsoever installing my copy, I do acknowledge this was some time ago whilst running Windows 98. I can only assume that updates have not been kind to the setup process.

      OVERALL
      If you want to learn how to touch type in 90 minutes, KAZ is the best option you have. No, you won't be tapping your keyboard at a hundred words per minute after an hour and a half, but the only thing stopping you from achieving speed is practice and muscle memory. Given a few weeks, you'll be confident enough to type essays and dooyoo reviews in no-time flat.

      If you fancy giving touch-typing a bash, or previously experienced nothing but failure trying in the past, I recommend you give KAZ the once over. While I can't guarantee success, I can promise it's the best solution I've found on the market and it certainly worked like a miracle for me.

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      • More +
        07.05.2011 19:20
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        A worthy mid-range contender for your cash!

        INTRODUCTION
        If those iPod earbuds are getting you down with their sub-par performance, it's time to upgrade to something with a touch more class. Enter the Etymotic ER6 Isolator earphones.

        These mid-range 'phones have been designed specifically with travel and portability in mind, coming complete with case, replacement tips and a lightweight body design for easy on-the-go usage.

        What's more, these phones are designed to be inserted directly into the ear canal itself, ensuring optimal passive noise cancellation operation. So, if you don't fancy listening to inane bus chatter on your way home from work, the ER6s may seem like an ideal investment.

        WHAT YOU GET
        Along with the Velcro-sealed travel pouch and interchangeable eartips you also receive a handy tie clip to hold your wires in place, a set of replacement filters for when they get clogged up with earwax, and a tool to easily extract the old filters when the time comes.

        Considering the price, you actually get a fairly good kit for the deal. Whilst I would have liked an extra set of foam plugs to accompany the package, it still leaves you with a reasonable set of options for getting started.

        SOUND QUALITY
        As I mentioned in my Audio Technica review some months back, each pair of headphones/earphones have their own sound signature; for example, the ATH-AD700s are treble heavy with great spatial qualities.

        Summing up the ER6's signature is both a pleasure and a joy. An almost mechanical evenness across the board produces a wonderful result. Sweet, virtually roaring bass, strong well-rounded midtones and crisp trebles create one of the most pleasing results I've ever experienced from a set of in-ear buds.

        Spatially, the ER6s are quite dynamic considering their size. Whilst the soundstage feels tight (and understandably bordering on the claustrophobic at times), the ER6s do a remarkable job of pushing out the sonic elements as far and as wide as possible.

        The ER6s do their best work on modern, or remastered, pop music. High, glossy production values create the best result, with Top 40 hits sounding crisp, detailed and lively.
        Electronica, hip-hop and indie fans will certainly get their money's worth. Low frequencies are represented with sumptuous accuracy and beats feel punchy and broad. Swipes, samples and spots all seem bright and pleasing, while vocalists remain neutral but highly complementary to the track as a whole.
        By contrast, raw rock and metal can feel muddy and slightly cloudy at times, especially when drums are thumping, bass guitars thrashing and singers are all crowing in unison; the sound separation isn't really sufficient to cope with overdriven nuances in these circumstances.

        NOISE CANCELATION
        Unlike other headsets that rely on battery powered microphones to cancel out external noise, these Isolator earphones use passive technology. The phones are embedded into the ear canal itself in order to block the transmission of sound from the outside world; think of it like ear plugs with a sound system built in.

        The isolation technology works as well as you'd expect given the design, and definitely performs a lot better than most cancellation methods. You'd certainly find moments of musical Zen with these inserted; but this brings with it a whole host of problems, not least blocking out sound you may actually want to hear such as a doorbell ringing or a car horn peeping.

        Overall, the cancellation system gets a big thumbs up from me; while I admit each variety of earplug brings with it a noticeably different result (plastic is certainly more effective than foam), taken as a whole there are no complaints to be had.

        COMFORT
        Comfort is one of the largest considerations when it comes to choosing noise-cancelling ear buds. This is where I have a few issues with the ER6s; mild irritation with the plastic plugs has left me reluctant to use these attachments for extensive periods.
        While the foam produces a much better result for long listening sessions, they do require constant replacement for the sake of hygiene - plastic can be cleaned with soapy water and constantly reused while the foam buds have nowhere to go except the trash.

        Still, others have reported no such comfort issues; in fact, many have complemented the lightweight design of the phones and their ability to remain snug and secure during extended periods of listening. My advice would be to use caution; try purchasing from a reputable retailer who'll happily accept returns should you experience discomfort from the ER6's design.

        FIT
        Fitting the earphones is a little unusual due to the isolating properties of the buds. In effect, it means pulling up your outer ear during insertion to slide the earplug deeper into the outer canal. Of course, this requires a little more effort than usual, however you'll soon get used to the procedure and it becomes second nature very quickly.

        However, those who have misshapen ear canals may find the fit is somewhat displeasing. Naturally, if you know of an aural defect or have experienced issues in this department before, you should consider looking towards alternatives away from the 'in-ear' design.

        Similarly, I've found the fit can be a little *too* snug at times. There have been one or two occasions where the foam buds have disconnected from the drivers, in-ear. A steady hand and a set of tweezers can easily rectify the issue without the need for a trip to A&E, but be aware of the possibility before you buy.

        SERIES COMPARISONS
        The ER6 Isolator earphones were conceived as a low-cost alternative to the ER4 series. The ER6s uses thinner eartips and a lighter-weight cord than their more expensive cousins. Although the high-end frequencies aren't as well represented by the ER6s, they still make for the most accurate sound reproduction in their class.

        In fact, while the ER4s are less than half the price, the performance is almost as good as the top-of-the-range Etymotic earphones. It's no wonder that these buds have been top rate by a whole host of popular publications.

        While the ER4s get two years warranty instead of the one you receive with the ER6s, all but the most ardent of audiophiles will find the difference between the two minimal. Given the choice, I'd save the cash and plump for the ER6s any day of the week!

        OVERALL
        If you're willing to take a chance on something a little unusual, you could unquestionably do a lot worse than the ER6s. For a set of mid-range 'phones you could certainly find few competitors, outside of the Shure EC2s, able to perform as sweetly.

        If you want accurate, smooth sound reproduction with blanket noise cancellation coverage and a lightweight design the Etymotic ER6s could just be the phones for you.

        TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS
        Frequency response: 20 Hz to 16 kHz
        Tolerance: ±3 dB to 6 kHz, ±6 dB to 16 kHz re nominal
        Transducer type: Balanced Armature
        1 kHz sensitivity: 97 dB SPL for a 0.1 volt input
        Impedance: 48 Ohms
        Maximum output: 120 dB SPL
        Maximum continuous input: 2.5 Vrms
        Weight: less than 1 oz.

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        06.05.2011 14:55
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        An essential read for those under 30!

        If you were born after September 1979, I have some grim news for you: you are officially part of the 'Jilted Generation'. By coincidence of birth and age, you'll be the first group to pay tuition fees and humungous student loans; the first to be subjected to overinflated property prices; the first to lose the employment game in the information age; the first to be over taxed for an aging population, and the first to spend a lifetime in mounting private debt.

        'Jilted Generation' is a polemic on Britain's youth authored by Ed Howker and Shiv Malik. The writers present a snapshot of the 'Under 30s' unfortunate situation and highlight a selection of arenas where, through pure happenstance, a discontented & disadvantaged generation is emerging.

        HOUSING
        The first area the authors tackle is homes. The over inflation of ownership costs are explained in clear concise terms, focusing predominantly on first-time buyers who can expect to pay over a third more than their parents' generation.

        The writers are quick to point out that without the plentiful supply of council properties to plunder, and the 'leg up' this offered many young couples in the 1980s, the quality and quantity of first-time housing has significantly fallen.

        Banks are increasingly weary of those without an extended credit history and the average deposit required for a first-time property has increased to a staggering 25% - the highest it's been since records began in 1974. No wonder the 'boomerang generation' have failed to join the property ladder, with only 2% of homeowners under the age of 25!

        Howker and Malik open with a bang; the intricate analysis of government figures paints a desperate picture of future home ownership in the UK. With a new housing shortfall of over 1.4 million properties, it doesn't take a statistics expert to see the dire state of affairs for first time buyers; still, the authors forge a coherent and accessible argument presenting the situation in context of previous generations, putting these figures into perspective.

        JOBS
        Chapter two focuses on the employment paradox, especially of those who are highly educated. The opening pages go into the tragic story of Vicky Harrison who, aged 21 with ten good GCSEs and three respectable A-levels, returned home from University and committed suicide after failing to gain employment despite many hundreds of applications.

        The figures don't paint a pretty picture. Youth unemployment jumped in 2009 by 68%, with 1 in 10 people under 35 out of work and 1 in 5 under 24 year olds without a job. Worse still, in 2010 there were 69 graduates going after every job vacancy!

        By contrast, the aging population were doing better during this period than before the recession began! Men over 60 actually found more jobs during the same period, and the number of women working past retirement age rose by 2%.

        The authors spend much of the chapter placing this new generation's employment prospects in context, and it does raise some interesting points - not least being the intense rise in 'unpaid internships', 'volunteer work' and 'placement opportunities' - doing the same drudge work as underlings without the pay packet at the end of the week, job security or benefits.

        INHERITANCE
        Although the title of the third chapter suggests an exposé of death taxes, the book only quickly glances at this particular levy. In fact, this section primarily observes problems the 'jilted generation' has inherited from the 'baby boomers' current rule.

        Issues like an aging population and massive national debt are tackled with a reasonable flair, examining the cost of borrowing, the price of pensions, hidden debt and PFI schemes.

        While lacking the immediacy of the prior chapters, many interesting questions regarding the future of Britain are raised. Although much of the text is spent hypothesising and speculating on where we may be headed as a nation, a convincing body of well-referenced research backs up the suppositions with seamless clarity.

        Though much of the chapter is open for debate, the polemical viewpoint taken by the authors isn't overbearing, and it only takes a modest level of persuasion to see how certain systems and structures within modern Britain actively deny the advancement of the 'jilted generation'.

        POLITICS
        The final chapter takes a greater look at the political system and the inequities between the generations. This portion of the book boils down to an exploration of power balance and representation; the authors suggest core voters, like the elderly, are given an assortment of benefits and pledges (everything from free television licences to restoring the earnings link for the state pension) whilst the 'jilted generation' is politically shunned.

        It goes on to suggest that the 'boomers' hold the majority of the political sway, and the two authors spend the remainder of the book looking at how individualism has led to election-based dogma and pollster factioning.

        While far more argumentative than the previous chapters, there's still a convincing message found beneath this final, emotionally charged push. Despite the fact that Howker and Malik resort to editorialising within the final bout, the quality of the message is kept respectably cultured throughout.

        SUMMARY
        From my own perspective, I've found the overall message one I can easily relate to. Britain's growing problems and social issues are beautifully contextualised within the chapters, made all the more remarkable by the authors' forthright style.

        It's a real shame the book couldn't be expanded to include a more dynamic itinerary away from the 'big four'. For example, little is mentioned about the everyday human impact; they don't fully investigate the effect that debt, unemployment, parental homes and unending internships are having on young men and women week-in, week-out.
        While authors like Naomi Klein try to put their research into a personal context, Howker and Malik have chosen quite a dry 'just the facts ma'am' approach for the majority of the book.

        Although a hotbed of debate, I can only pass judgement through my own situation and that of those around me, and in this regard, I feel the writers have hit the nail right on the head.
        University friends and I are finding that student debt hangs heavy, career building is blindsided by wage-slaving, loans and lines of credit are closed off, real jobs are scarce whilst unpaid placements plentiful, home is increasingly looking like a bedroom at the parents, and prospects for the future look increasingly bleak.

        Though much of the book's prickly nay saying toward the 'baby boomers' feels unwarranted (after all, what generation wouldn't take what's on offer to them?), the factual, statistical base is certainly one that reflects and highlights the experiences and general plight of the post 'boomer' generation.

        While those looking to grab a free digital copy of the book have unfortunately missed the boat, I would definitely recommend splashing out a fiver for the paperback and a fascinating read.

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        • More +
          02.05.2011 16:58
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          A good buy for solid, if somewhat generic, performance.

          INTRODUCTION
          Keyboard and mouse combos aren't exactly rare in the world of PC peripherals; nor are wireless devices which connect to your computer remotely. So it comes as no surprise to see the Logitech Cordless Desktop EX 110 combine both qualities inside a single package.

          CONNECTIONS
          The EX 110 uses wireless RF technology to connect both keyboard and mouse to your machine via a base station; the receiver sits unobtrusively on the desk ready to accept commands and sent them to your machine using USB and generic PS/2 connectors.

          Thanks to this no-nonsense design, you are pretty much guaranteed a good quality connection between devices and desktop, so there's no need to concern yourself over signal loss and temperamental control protocols like Bluetooth.

          While drivers and utilities are included on a CD, I found no need to use them, with both keyboard and mouse being detected automatically by my initial installation setup. That being said, I don't use the extra 'shortcut' keys which do require the software to be installed in order to work correctly.

          I can also confirm that the Logitech Cordless Desktop EX 110 is suitable for use with a Playstation 3, and it's a worthwhile proposition if you find the on-screen entry system as much of a nightmare as I do. Not only does it make online-gaming more fun, but simple things like password entry and username registration go much quicker too.

          KEYBOARD
          It should come as no great revelation to find the keyboard is a fairly non-descript device. A standard full-size layout complete with Windows key and number pad means you're getting a standardised piece of kit.

          The device runs on two AAA alkaline batteries that last a fair while before finally fading. After a simple sync with the base station you're ready to get going with minimal delay between keystroke and display.

          On the plus side, the keyboard is remarkably lightweight and you can get many comfortable hours of typing done with the device sat on your lap. There's also stand-tabs on the bottom if you'd rather go more formal and sit at the desk, not to mention an additional wrist support add-on if you intend to spend all day at your PC.
          Lastly, the keyboard is supposedly spill proof, meaning accidental flooding won't ruin the electrical connectors inside; I can't really comment on this feature as I've learnt from history not to drink and eat over my keys, but spill proof technology is still a welcomed addition.

          The only real negatives come from range and build-quality, with neither being particularly impressive. You'll easily lose your connection if you sit more than a metre or two away from your base-station, and being of cheap construction you'll quickly find the rattling and creaking most off-putting. Still, for the price, they're complaints worth living with.

          MOUSE
          Of similar plain, plastic construction, the optical laser mouse runs on two AA alkaline batteries. Featuring a clickable scroll wheel and regular left/right mouse buttons, the standard arrangement feels firm if a little uninspired.

          The shape and profile are a little more tapered than I'm used to, but it's still pleasing to use the mouse over large periods of time. While the battery life isn't as strong as the keyboard, it still spews out power for a few weeks without too much fuss.

          Once again, the negatives are only really restricted to range and build quality. Predictably, it's the same problems here as it is for the keyboard; while I would complain too vigorously about the matter, it's still an unavoidable set of issues.

          PRICE
          This is where the Logitech Cordless Desktop EX 110 comes into its own. As a package, the entire combination costs a little less than twenty pounds - an absolute bargain considering a wired duo of this quality could easily cost the same!

          If you're looking to invest in a spare keyboard and mouse, or are hunting out a cheap replacement for your current setup, I'd be negligent in denying this attractive package for such a small initial outlay. My only advice would be to invest in a suitable charger with an appropriate mix of AA and AAA Ni-MH batteries; while disposable replacements aren't exactly an extraordinary expense, the cost will begin to mount up over time.

          OVERALL
          It's one of those cases where the sum outweighs the parts. While I'd be reluctant to recommend any of the components on their own (alternative devices would probably perform better in general), I'd happily recommend this 'all-in-one' wireless solution at such a reasonable price.

          For the money, you're getting a solid act from both items and if, after a year or two, you feel it's time to upgrade to something more substantial, you won't feel disappointed having invested less than twenty quid total.

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          • More +
            01.05.2011 14:15
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            Definitely a brush to keep your eye on.

            The Philips Sonicare is said to be one of the most advanced toothbrushes available on the market today. Recommended by a range of dental care professionals, the 'HealthyWhite' range is said to remove everyday stains in just two weeks with regular brushing resulting in teeth that are two shades whiter.

            Having gone through toothbrush after toothbrush with disappointing results, it took many weeks of research before I decided to invest in this device. After waiting for a half price sale (and with a generous dose of 'bonus' points), I managed to buy this brush for a little shy of £40. But is it worth the cash?

            CLEANING MODE
            For every day use, the cleaning mode is where it's at. Upon clicking the big green button, the brush clicks into life, oscillating at a vigorous rate. It continues motoring at a constant speed for thirty seconds before slowing momentarily to indicate a change in brushing quadrant.

            The instructions suggest you start with top outside, followed by top inside, bottom outside and finally bottom inside completing your two minutes. This ensures you're getting a good brushing over the entire mouth.

            Personally, I love the unobtrusive 'buzzing' of the indicator; it lets you know efficiently and silently, what's happening. Although the timer won't improve your brushing technique, it will at least equate to a solid morning/evenings' clean.

            WHITENING MODE
            The HX6731/02 HealthyWhite isn't short on special features. In addition to the regular brush mode, you also have the 'Clean & White' setting; this adds an extra thirty seconds of brush time to give your smile a little more TLC than usual.

            It was this 'whitening' feature that initially attracted me to this brush over rivals such as Braun, and I'm sure it's the reason many others have chosen it too.
            It's surprising, then, to find that the whitening mode must be activated manually each time you brush. This involves clicking the green centre button a second time once in use; naturally, with the brush head already vibrating and spattering toothpaste over your bathroom, double-clicking can be a complex task whilst in motion. I'm sure it wouldn't have been too difficult to throw in a save-state that remembers your mode choice, but alas, it's left notable by its absence.

            SENSITIVE MODE
            The Sonicare also offers an extra gentle mode for those with sensitive teeth and gums. Although I don't regularly use this setting, I think it's still fairly vigorous, especially for those with particularly susceptible mouths.

            People with mild sensitivity may see some benefit from this mode, but I doubt many will specifically opt for this toothbrush and its forceful 31,000 strokes a minute if they have genuinely thin-skinned gums.

            POWER ISSUES
            The HX6731/02 HealthyWhite comes with its own two-pin charger. If, like me, you don't have an appropriate power socket, you'll need to purchase an adapter in order to charge the brush. Thankfully, these can be brought in pairs for a very reasonable price in most high street stockists.

            The charging station is certainly stable enough to withhold the brush without too much interference; however, if given a slight nudge, it wouldn't take much for the whole thing to tumble over. Living in a home entirely occupied by adults, this proves little problem for myself, but those with eager kids should definitely consider the placement of the unit before powering up.

            From full to empty, the specifications suggest you should get approximately twenty brushings. This is a reasonable guide, but your mileage may vary according to your settings and storage environment. Certainly after twelve month's use, I'm still getting sixteen to eighteen brushes per charge.

            When the battery is low, you're alerted by a vibrating jolt at the end of the cleaning cycle and a flashing LED indicator. I'm not a huge fan of such nonchalant interference, and the juddering pulse seems like overkill to me. That said, it's just a personal distaste, and many have complemented its eager warning system.

            COST
            As I stated earlier in the review, I got my Sonicare for just shy of £40 with discounts. This is fantastic value for any brush of this specification, and I definitely wouldn't mind splashing out the sixty-five pounds requested for recommended retail value.

            Yet there's a single expenditure for the HX6731/02 HealthyWhite I do object to - and it's one which you may feel is a deal breaker...

            The replacement heads aren't the cheapest on the planet. In fact, the 'ProResults Standard' heads come in three packs for roughly £18 at retail; even discount online retailers ask for fifteen pounds or more! At five or six pound per head, you're definitely going to paying a premium over, say, Braun's Oral-B replacements (roughly two pounds a piece), and while you do get an extra travel cap head protector with the 3-pack, it's hard to see where all the extra money is going.

            OVERALL
            While I don't believe I got 'two shades whiter after just two weeks', the HX6731/02 HealthyWhite is certainly one of the better brushes I've had the pleasure of using over the course of my lifetime.

            While the replacement head issue may be a sticking point for some, I'm still happy to pay the extra for a brush that works well and feels great to use. If your budget can stretch this far, I'd happily recommend the HX6731/02 HealthyWhite to anyone.

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            • Hama Star 42 / Tripod / 23 Readings / 22 Ratings
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              27.04.2011 17:02
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              A worthwhile, pragmatic choice for those seeking a cheap tripod.

              INTRODUCTION
              If you've ever found yourself looking through the family photo album cursing the wonky landscapes and tilted portraits, it's about time you invested in a tripod for your camera.

              The Hama Star 42 is a consumer model tripod suitable for everyday shooting events. Although aimed solely at the home market, the tripod comes complete with quick release system and 3-way positioning head to ensure precision and speed in equal measure.

              CONSTRUCTION
              The tripod is made of lightweight aluminium and is of a typical nine segment construction. Each of the three legs has three extendable sections, allowing you to adjust the height with a fair degree of accuracy. These segments are held in place with small plastic clips that pinch into place; while these tabs aren't the strongest I've ever encountered, they do an admirable job of holding things together on a day to day basis.

              The rotating head plate is made of a strong plastic, as is the quick release mechanism. While this means you'd be unwise to trust the Hama Star 42 with your most expensive equipment, it does provide an adequate level of support for virtually all home cameras and recording appliances.

              PORTABILITY
              Being constructed of aluminium, the tripod weighs in at a paltry 1.2kg, which means you're unlikely to be breaking a sweat whilst lugging this around; having been on several outdoor excursions with this tripod, I can report its easy enough to transport without issue. In fact, while *not* recommended, I have had occasion to pick up and move the loaded tripod using the panning armature alone.

              Unlike your average 'pro' model, the lack of ballast equates to a rather pleasing result. When fully retracted the tripod becomes incredibly portable, resulting in a practical stand you can keep and store in the back of your car without concern for wasted space.

              OTHER ISSUES
              While it's hard to fault such a utilitarian device, there are some issues that should be identified before throwing down your cash on the tripod.

              Firstly, you must remember you're getting a consumer model. As such you don't get the typical extras like gyroscopic elements, ball-bearing swivel heads and spirit level indicators; you therefore shouldn't rely on this model for professional quality work, lest you find your camcorder pans a little jerky, snaps slightly askew and your heavyweight £10,000 DSLR crashing to the floor in a strong gust of wind.

              Secondly, I have had a couple of instances where the grips and 'locks' have become stuck or wedged after the tripod has been left sitting unused for a couple of months; however, these issues have easily been solved with a quick spray of WD40 and a little elbow grease.

              OVERALL
              Minor quibbles aside, the Hama Star 42 is a proficient, if somewhat generic, attempt at a consumer-grade tripod. If you're looking to up your photographic range without investing big-bucks, you can do far worse than splashing out £20 for this model.

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            • More +
              26.04.2011 19:47
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              A worthy investment

              INTRODUCTION
              The Western Digital Elements is a 3.5 inch external desktop drive, formatted to store all your data, be it photos, movies, music or documents. Connected via USB 2.0, you'll be able to attach the WD Elements drive to virtually any PC or Mac created in the past decade or so.

              APPEARANCE
              With the drive's dimensions sitting at a cosy 18cm x 11.5cm, the HDD is not going to take up too much room on your workstation. In a mix of gloss rim and matt-finish lid, the unobtrusive colour scheme will sit pretty in all but the most unusual of office environments.

              The drive features rubber grips on each of the four corners of the base. This will prevent the Hard disk from slipping around if knocked, and avoid any potential data corruption in the process.

              The LED indicator is a 'hot white' that sits at the back of the drive alongside the power supply and mini-USB connector. While it's unobtrusive and of suitably subtle brightness, the rear placement can make it a pain to see when data transfer is actually occurring.

              OPERATION
              Unlike several other desktop drives ranking in the terabyte range, the Elements disk contains no noisy fan or grinding armatures; near silent running is all you'll ever hear from this little box. Even during active transfer, the whisper quiet operation is rather refreshing, putting my laptops' rasping whirr to shame.

              Data transfer is suitably speedy, and USB 2.0 speeds mean a swift result each time. Although the drive suffers compared to internal disks, it's far from a disaster. Waiting for the WD to get up to speed can be a bore at times, taking 12-20 seconds in some instances; however, when activate, the lag is virtually seamless.

              The only real complaint, when it comes to operation, is the lack of power options. The drive requires a dedicated power supply, being unable to draw enough phantom power through the USB drive for continued operation. This means finding yet another socket alongside your tower, monitor, printer and router.

              Similarly, there's no on/off toggle, meaning you'll have to power the drive up from the socket directly. Those concerned about mounting electricity bills may want to invest in a more expensive 2.5" portable drive to avoid any 'power draw' issues.

              OVERALL
              With a mighty 1Tb of storage (or approximately 930Gb after formatting), you're not going to be stuck for space when it comes to the Western Digital Elements drive. Practical, inconspicuous and silent operation mean there's little to dissuade you from buying a very pragmatic drive.

              Having experienced no data loss in the 18 months since purchase, I can only recommend you give the Western Digital Elements range consideration when you're next on the lookout for extra disk space.

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            • More +
              23.04.2011 15:30
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              A solid performer, victim of its age. The NV-GS180 is still a worthy consumer SD-DV camera.

              Five years ago, I finally took the plunge and purchased my first DV camcorder. In a market saturated with different brands and formats, I decided upon what was the smallest, lightest 3CCD camcorder available at the time: the Panasonic NV-GS180.

              With a 10x optical zoom, wind noise reduction, stereo microphone, low light mode and 1/16" Optical sensor, this tiny device packed a rather big punch for the money. But how does it fair compared to today's offerings, and is it still worth hunting down this discontinued model?

              PICTURE QUALITY
              Although DV is limited in its scope for quality, the NV-GS180 handles itself very well. Although the image quality is never going to match up against prosumer cameras with 1/3" or 1/6" sensors, it nonetheless displays bright, vivacious pictures in all but the lowest of lights.

              With 3CCDs, the colour reproduction is spectacular and produces stunning results with most material. Unlike the CMOS driven cameras so prevalent by today's standards, the split channel colours are captured with a naturalistic vibrancy and without the 'jelly' panning and 'flibbing' experienced by lesser models.

              I also feel compelled to note that whilst the low light conditions are somewhat temperamental, they're surprisingly good when it comes to grain; the NV-GS180 fights the effects of fuzz wherever it can!

              If there were any complaints to be had, it'd be the image sharpness; footage can look a little soft round the edges, especially when autofocusing in action-packed scenes. Filmmakers looking for hard, crisp edges from their video may be disappointed by the occasionally hazy results.

              AUDIO QUALITY
              In another surprise result, audio from the camera is pretty darned good too. Not only does it feature stereo sound, from an age when camcorders were usually stuck with mono, but the clarity is sharp and supple.

              You won't be getting 'studio' quality of course, but then from a built-in microphone you'd expect nothing more. Even though most camcorders have surpassed the technology nowadays, some companies could really take a lesson from the Panasonic NV-GS180's approach to capturing sound.

              For a camera of the size, it's also nice to see a hidden port available for an external microphone too. Although it's a 6mm connector, rather than the more useful XLR or 3.5mm jack, it still affords you more opportunities for collecting your audio than most camcorders.

              MANUAL MODE
              Another reason you'll want to take a good look at the NV-GS180 is its approach to manual settings. If you feel confident enough to take it off 'auto' mode, you'll be rewarded by a diverse range of customization; everything you can do with a regular manual camera you can do with the NV-GS180.

              Having said that, you'll find that setting up a particularly 'artsy' shot can be difficult with the camera. All the options are menu driven by a mini-joystick toggle; it means selecting manual options can be an exercise in mechanical frustration: after ten minutes of twiddling with the settings you'll soon be craving a jog dial or lens ring!

              Still, it's undeniable that for a camera aimed at the consumer market, it comes with all the options and settings you'd expect from a unit twice the size and price. The NV-GS180 certainly put up strong competition in its day...

              TRANSFER
              Being a DV camera, tape transfer requires a standard 'IEEE1394' firewire connection. Those looking for an easy 'drag and drop' approach to editing should most-definitely look elsewhere for a camcorder.

              Still, the NV-GS180 is happily compatible with most hardware setups and comes with a copy of the Panasonic drivers for your PC to avoid most incompatibility issues.
              The only element of note should be that the camera is Firewire 400, not Firewire 800; therefore, if you're using a new MacBook for your editing exploits then you'll need to take this into account before you buy your cabling.

              Speaking of which, you'll almost certainly have to dip into your pockets again to purchase the wire. Whilst the camera includes various connectors, it doesn't come with a Firewire cable - a slightly cheap move by the crew at Panasonic, but not a shock considering it's industry practice to exclude such 'optional extras'.

              BATTERY LIFE
              The NV-GS180's recording time is far from slack. At a full charge, you can expect well over an hour from a broken-in Li-ion rechargeable battery.

              Seeing that the included pack is only rated at 640mAh, you may want to consider purchasing a slightly bigger capacity to increase the record/standby time beyond the default: Whilst you needn't be paranoid about a fully charged unit, it won't take long to deplete the charge with the built-in 2.5" colour LCD monitor switched on all day.

              Treat the device's power conservatively and you'll find that the unit rewards you with a more-than-reasonable lifespan before you need to hit the power supply again. A charge from empty to full will take approximately two hours, so be sure to bring a spare battery if you'll be shooting 'on-location' at a wedding - you don't want the camcorder to cut out mid-way through the best man speech!

              OVERALL
              Considering the age of the unit, the NV-GS180 still feels like the nimble device it was half a decade ago. While I could hardly recommend the camcorder now that 720p and 1080p are the norm, I'd certainly not complain if it's the only thing I had to hand.

              I recently used my unit to create a video display for a group of professionals who complemented and applauded the quality of my footage. While I'm no amateur videographer, I'd still share my credit with the NV-GS180 due to its hassle-free handling of the occasion. Colour and sound were captured with crisp clarity, the manual settings allowed for a certain degree of artistry, and the on-board stabilisation, zoom and viewfinder made the experience trouble free.

              If you can find the NV-GS180 for pocket-change at a car boot sale or market stall, then I'd heartily recommend giving it a go, especially if you're looking to film your next adventure holiday without risking the safety of your brand-new £1,000 DSLR.

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            • More +
              22.04.2011 16:00
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              Good value stick; worth a look if you're searching for a simple, easy-to-use USB drive.

              The DataTraveler 100 is a Hi-speed USB flash stick, and one of the earlier releases in Kingston's popular on-going range of pen drives.

              LOOK & FEEL
              The DataTraveler 100 comes in a two-tone black plastic enclosure, complete with retractable connector that releases via a slide/push toggle on the side. Unlike similar flash sticks, the DataTraveler 100 range has a remarkably slim profile, ideal for those needing to tackle a USB-heavy machine with large, clunky connectors taking up the vast majority of space surrounding the ports.

              There's also a rather nifty gap on the end of the stick for connecting a lanyard (not included) - ideal if you don't like USB sticks rattling around in your pocket or bag.

              Data transfer is represented with a light green LED. Again, while it isn't as appealing as other brands with their cool-blue and off-white indicators, it's a nonetheless welcomed addition.
              While the sleek, dark look of the product is mainly appealing, the casing is somewhat flimsy; however, considering the normally cheap housing of other brands, it's by no means any worse than equally spec'd sticks.

              WEAR & TEAR
              Having used two identical DataTraveler 100 sticks for several years now, I'm happy to report the pen drive can withstand quite a lot of punishment; although the connector strength has weakened slightly after continually being extended and retracted, it still works with few issues, other than occasional slippage whilst inserting into a tight PC port.

              Whilst I'm hardly one to throw my electrical equipment around the room willy-nilly, both sticks have most definitely had a couple knocks and scrapes along the way, making it all the more impressive that neither stick has experienced any form of data loss, scratching or marking.

              SPEED
              The data transfer rates depend largely on the USB technology your computer uses (1.0, 1.1, 2.0, etc). At any rate, I've found the swapping of data to be efficient and quick, considering the lack of any 'Boost' technology/functionality embedded into the product.

              COST
              I paid £15 for two 1Gb sticks a couple of years ago, so you'll be glad to hear the discontinued DataTraveler 100 drives, in sizes up to 2Gb, can be purchased brand-new for well-under a fiver.
              As far as value for money goes, I really can't fault them. While you may be able to find better sticks available in bigger sizes, I'm hard pushed to complain about the product you'll experience for this price.

              OVERALL
              If you're on the lookout for a real workhorse of a drive, geared more toward efficiency and utility than good looks or extra features, then you'll do well in picking up a couple of DataTraveler 100s.
              Although newer flash stick technology is available, these little drives are well worth a look-in if you're after something practical and fairly compact.

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            • toluna-group.com / Internet Site / 23 Readings / 17 Ratings
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              22.04.2011 14:52
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              Poorly structured reward system and techincal issues leave a lot to be desired.

              Toluna is an online service that exchanges answers to questionnaires for a variety of rewards. Every time you fill out a survey, you receive a pre-determined number of points. These points accumulate within your account until you decide to exchange them for high-street gift vouchers or competition entries.

              QUESTIONNAIRES
              The surveys themselves are a mixed bag. Sometimes you'll be asked to fill out questions on home entertainment, health, telecommunications, lifestyle products, food, and so forth. The variety on offer does keep things interesting; even the most ardent worker would be bored of filling in ten surveys in a row to do with their mobile operator.

              That said, it does mean that if you don't fit the ideal profile, you're not going to be given the opportunity to answer questions on the subject. For instance, if the research company wants information on families that own three or more cars, and you own two, there'll be no points for you...

              Even if you do happen to qualify to take the test, the researchers may already have enough respondents in your demographic. You may find that after answering half a dozen stock questions (age, residential area, gender, etc) you'll be rejected. Obviously, this is quite frustrating, made all the worse by it happening time after time. On one occasion I was rejected in this fashion ten or more times in a row.

              This system of rejection is not an isolated incident by any means. As it happens so regularly, Toluna offers you a free 'prize draw' entry each time you're pushed out before the survey completes; it's a nice appeasement the first few times, but as that elimination counter hits three digits you'll probably feel more in the way of resentment than gratitude.

              This, of course, assumes that you're able to take the survey in the first place. If you're running an archaic copy of Internet Explorer then you'll probably not experience half the issues of everyone else. Should you deviate from a Windows operating system you'll find survey compatibility issues arise more often than not - several of the external research companies use multimedia that isn't compatible with anything other than IE6 and Windows XP.

              And then, of course, there's the other extreme; on three occasions I've sat and answered substantial surveys to over 95% completion, only to be ejected for no apparent reason: "Thanks for all your detailed private information, but you don't qualify; and no, you won't be receiving any points for the thirty wasted minutes of your time".

              So are there any positives to be had from the survey experience? Sometimes. Though they are few and far between. If you do happen to find a questionnaire that invites you to join in, you may find yourself being shown exclusive, never-before-seen products from top industry players. I've seen trailers of movies that are in post production, been asked about script outlines to blockbuster movies yet to be made, given my opinion on conceptual products and their worth, plus I've had influence on all kinds of functions and features on products I'd like to see in the future. When Toluna's partners trust you with these responsibilities, you are made to feel quite valuable.

              THE TEST AREA
              Another aspect of Toluna's service includes item testing. This ranges from new toothbrushes all the way to 3DTVs. The number of products on offer is also directly related to the value of the item; while there may only be three new Xbox360 consoles ready for testing, there might be several thousand packets of a flavoured curry sauce.

              Either way, I wouldn't be too excited by the proposition of testing products; in the six months I've been a member, nothing has made it my way despite numerous requests to take part. With tens of thousands of members, it feels like you're applying to take part in a glorified tombola. Knowing that if you ever become a 'special chosen one' you're only likely to be rewarded with a new type of cleaning cloth or wacky-flavoured KitKat is particularly demotivating.

              MONTHLY PRIZE DRAW
              As I've already touched on, every month there is a prize draw to win several hundred/thousand pounds. But as with the product testing, you're unlikely to ever see a penny. As prize draw entries are handed out after every unsuccessful test, you can easily accumulate a hundred or more per month; as such, there's plenty of competition for the coveted cash.

              While it's a nice enticement, I wouldn't put all my hopes and dreams into ever winning the prize draw.

              VOUCHERS
              The reason why you're using Toluna no doubt. Vouchers can be purchased for 16,000-18,000 account points. This may not seem like a lot of points when you initially sign up for the service. However, as you slowly phase out those quizzes that aren't relevant to you, you'll find that you're not going to get much more than a few thousand per day at most. Finding enough points quickly becomes tedious and you may find that grasping for a few hundred points feels increasingly less worthwhile.

              When you finally have enough for vouchers, you'll be glad to know there's a fairly significant range of choices on offer: you'll be able to trade-in for a range of different stores.

              For my first voucher trade-in I decided on 'Love2Shop' vouchers; these can be cashed in virtually anywhere on the high street. Just before Christmas 2010 I put in my order and waited for the £15 to arrive. And I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. In fact, it took until mid-April 2011 until they finally hit my doorstep!

              OVERALL
              As far as the service goes, I'm fairly disappointed. With slow voucher delivery times, a poor selection process, seemingly impossible to win prizes and test products that you're never picked for, it's hard to recommend much about the service that appears to tolerate your work at best.

              While there are some advantages to using the service if you're a profile match, you'd be hard-pressed to find many people who are. My advice? Stick with dooyoo instead - it's a far more rewarding experience on every level.

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              • Scream 4 (DVD) / DVD / 26 Readings / 26 Ratings
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                18.04.2011 12:17
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                Missing the spark of the original trilogy, SCRE4M produces no scares, few laughs and little plot.

                Horror-maestro Wes Craven and screenwriting extraordinaire Kevin Williamson team up once again, after a decade absence, to author another postmodern outing in the, once-revolutionary, fright-fest franchise.

                Trilogy survivor, Sidney Prescot (Neve Campbell), has returned from the wilderness with a best-selling, life-affirming, self-help book in toe. Starting her press tour in Woodsboro, it's not long before our old friend Ghostface makes an appearance complete with a new generation of teens to terrorize.

                Courtney Cox and David Arquette reprise their roles as the bumbling officer Dewey Riley, and hard-nosed investigative reporter Gale Weathers; needless to say, the real-life couple adds the same quirky chemistry established in the prior trilogy, with the characters attracting and repelling each other to great effect.

                Well established in the sleepy-town-gone-awry, these broadly drawn archetypes feel as fun and cartoonish as ever. Rekindling the character bonds of old means our attention can be refocused on a whole new set of characters, including Sidney's younger cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), her ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella), best friend Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), cinema club geek Charlie (Rory Culkin) and web-casting associate Robbie (Erik Knudsen).

                As with most slasher sequels, these latest roles are potential 'death fodder' for our serial killer. Perhaps unexpectedly, this leaves little time or energy wasted on anything resembling character development; each death is little more than an insignificant interlude before the inevitable final-reel showdown.

                Sadly, this lack of advancement extends well beyond these two dimensional 'lambs to the slaughter'. Williamson's slick, sardonic wit is largely absent from the screen too. The heavy-handed referencing, so fresh and satirical in the mid nineties, feels dated and clichéd in the post-millennial age.
                In the same breath, characters proselytise about 'breaking the horror rules' whilst following them with effortless precision. In one scene, when our lurking villain reveals his location as the closet to his terrorized victim over the phone, the audience knows exactly what the next move will be - deadening any thrill or scare we may have hoped for.
                As self-aware postmodernity is so heavily ingrained in our movies (and movies-within-movies), capturing the irreverent spirit of the first two titles was always going to be nigh-on impossible, and it comes as no surprise to see the film fail to rekindle the magic of old.

                This franchise has been pulled out of cold storage way too early; memories of the modern horror reboots, so 'amusingly' referenced by Hayden Panettiere in a single line of dialogue, have become the new vanguard of the genre, and SCRE4M fails to build on their success or add anything of real significance to the formula, merely going through the motions and ultimately failing to revitalise this zombified effort.

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                • More +
                  17.11.2010 20:43
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                  A mammoth title to keep you playing for months, if not years, to come.

                  INTRODUCTION
                  Continuing in the same vein as its predecessor 'Fallout 3', 'New Vegas' resumes the post-apocalyptic role-playing of Bethesda Softworks' saga, but this time within the confines of Nevada.

                  You play a courier who's fallen victim to a group of local bandits who've left you for dead on the side of the road. Rather than retreating, grateful for your survival, you've instead made it your mission to peruse your attackers, completing a variety of missions along the way.

                  WELCOME TO VEGAS
                  Thankfully, nothing much has changed between 'Fallout 3' and the latest outing of the saga. Adjusting to key combinations is pretty simple, only compelling newcomers to learn the intricacies of the control system.

                  Just as before, much of the title is spent travelling to various locations on the game map, completing tasks set by various NPCs along the way. Needless to say, if the previous title didn't "float your boat", there's nothing in 'New Vegas' that's likely to change your outlook.

                  The V.A.T.S. system also makes a welcome return. Dulling the tedious battle system of Oblivion (the game engine on which 'Fallout' is based), V.A.T.S. eschews the typical first/third person combat elements turning bloodshed into something more tactical and, arguably, enjoyable.

                  In fact, so much remains the same you'd be forgiven for labelling the title as 'lazy rehash'; after all, everything from the ammunition to the underground vaults make a re-appearance inside the game, and the "run to X to speak to Y" followed by the "return to Y to speak about X" missions are still as laborious and omnipresent as ever...

                  WHAT YOU'LL LOVE
                  But before you start singing the "seen it, done it, got the tee-shirt" song, remember what made 'Fallout 3' the undeniable 'Game of the year' in the first place!

                  "Fallout: New Vegas" is so tremendously vast you can't help but be drawn into the desolate, desperate world. You'll spend your time performing so many missions you'll wonder why your weekend has suddenly vanished; I would put a minimum time marker to completion as forty hours - and that excludes playing any of the seventy plus side missions: yes, you read that correctly: over seventy side missions!

                  You can take time out to help establish a drug den, reassert the authority of local gangs, investigate the disappearance of various residents, bring down evil mercenaries, help addicts quit their habit, find a new sheriff, play envoy to nearby troops, fix malfunctioning machinery, discover scrap metal for local merchants, pass declarations of love between sweethearts, enjoy a hearty game of cards and much, much, MUCH more!

                  Role Playing Games typically rehash the same tried and tested formula: spindly-male-in -a-fantasy-universe- saves-princess- with-gang-of- unlikely-heroes -battling-ghosts -and-phantoms- along-the-way. "New Vegas" and its ancestors reject this trope for a far more formidable storyline where genuine engagement and unlikely twists are far from a rarity.

                  LANDSCAPING
                  In a similar regard, although graphically equal to its predecessor in most respects, 'New Vegas' and its monotone landscaping feel as visceral as ever. With hundreds of locations, each as bleak as the last, you'll never be stuck for exploration or a new tonal feel: Underground vaults feel mechanised and disconnected from the outside world; Local towns feel sleepy and sparse; the tone of the Vegas 'strip' hits hard with a heady mix of harsh neon and urban commotion. Each place feels distinct, yet the dreary slick of nuclear oblivion paints the walls wherever you go.

                  Resurfacing from underground lairs after several hours fighting subterranean beasts, you can't help but experience a great sense of emergence - like the big gasp of air hitting your lungs after swimming underwater for a little too long. As your eyes readjust, you begin to notice the sheer metamorphic scale of the game. 'New Vegas' is as easily consuming as its forbearer, if not more so!

                  WHAT YOU'LL HATE
                  If only this wonderfully immersive feeling weren't distorted by the unfortunate arrival of the game's biggest issue - glitches!

                  For a game with the scale of 'Fallout: New Vegas' it wouldn't be a shock to find one or two early teething issues with the title. But unfortunately, the bugs within the game are definitely mutant sized.

                  While 'Fallout 3' was met with a handful of small event errors and one or two jitters, this sequel becomes, literally, unplayable at times. Regular hanging spells (for me, the count is in the high teens right now), mission lock ups and area lockouts are far from the exception.

                  For example, entering the Vegas strip after completing certain missions in a certain order will result in a black screen of death without fail; only wearing an 'old cowboy hat' seems to temporarily quash the problem!

                  More troubling still is the fact that while a recent 1.01 update has provided over two hundred scripting fixes (once again, you read that number correctly), most of the high-priority issues still remain in effect! It seems that concluding the virus mission for the Brotherhood will just have to wait until 1.02 comes along...

                  OVERALL
                  Yet, despite the failings of 'New Vegas', I still wouldn't trade my time with the game for any number of flavourless shooters or pallid racers. Even with the large-scale flaws and a desperate need to save every five minutes, I still lost myself to the fully realized construction of post-apocalyptic Vegas.

                  While casual gamers may despair at the sheer size and scale of the title, the hardcore will delight at losing themselves to this world of epic adventure.

                  While I might be more inclined to wait until the inevitable slew of post 'Holiday Season' patches before investing my cash, I can still assure you'll have a very Merry Christmas with this game wedged deep within your stocking.

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                • More +
                  19.09.2010 15:45
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                  An Overlooked Gem For The Wii

                  INTRODUCTION
                  Welcome to Bullworth academy, the New England boarding school set to become your latest home away from home. You play the belligerent 'new kid' Jimmy Hopkins, thrust into an unsettling world of jocks, nerds, preppies, bullies, townies and greasers.

                  Upon your arrival you meet the antagonistic Gary Smith, a sociopathic jibe-smacking misanthrope who slowly becomes your main rival in the game. To offset the balance, Pete Kowalski (or 'Petey' as he's nicknamed) is the closest thing you have to a best friend inside the walls of Bullworth; although not much of a fighter, Pete's brainpower more than makes up for it.

                  Over the course of six chapters, it's your mission to become the king of the school dealing with the misery of classes, performing tasks for fellow students and completing a cavalcade of preset errands along the way.

                  GAMEPLAY
                  Every day at the academy follows a preset pattern. Upon waking your first stop is morning classes; then, following a short break for lunch, you're straight into afternoon lessons after which you're free to do whatever you like until bedtime.

                  Daily classes consist of a series of familiarly themed mini games. For example, 'Guitar Hero' fans will instantly recognise the sequence mimicking fun of music class, and fans of 'Trauma Center' can rest easy that their cutting skill will come in handy during biology. Similarly, Chemistry takes on a 'Space Channel 5' pattern follow-along feel whilst Art class is a direct rip-off of arcade favourite 'Qix'.

                  On the one hand, this familiarity makes the lessons instantly playable with little confusion over objectives. The identifiable gameplay gives players the opportunity to jump right in and grab themselves extra goodies right from the word 'go'.

                  However, the lack of originality means lessons are often an exercise in persistent drudgery. Okay, so it lends itself well to the rigid realism of educational monotony, but who honestly wants to simulate the authentic ennui of school in their leisure time?

                  Thankfully, you don't need to adhere to this strict lesson plan if you don't wish. Feel free to skip classes as and when you like - just be prepared to face the wrath of roaming hall monitors and overeager prefects if you decide to bunk off for the day.

                  SANDBOX
                  It should come as no surprise to hear that the joy of free-roaming Bullworth's halls triumphs over the rigorous tedium of everyday classes. Over the course of each chapter, more and more environments become accessible, allowing you to investigate a greater area of Bullworth outside of the academy.

                  Although not as expansive and intricate as, say, 'Grand Theft Auto' (on which the 'Bully' game engine is directly based) there's enough 'going-on' to keep things interesting. Bored of missions? Why not perform a side quest. Don't like the thought of attending Chemistry? Break into a locker or three, or even search out a few collectables. There's never a reason to be bored in the world of 'Bully'.

                  Are there any negatives to be had with all this free-roaming space? Well, in the beginning, everything can get a little overwhelming: Learning button combos, finding out directions and remembering when classes start and finish can all be slightly bewildering.

                  But, just like any new school, you soon pick things up and even complex tasks become second nature. You quickly discover shortcuts over low-slung walls, pick up devastating weapons like super slingshots and commit to memory where each building entrance is located on the map.

                  STORY LINE
                  Single player missions are the main thrust of the game and each assignment is clearly marked with a star on the HUD/map screen. Simply walk Jimmy over the top of a glowing disc and hit the Z button to begin the next story mission.

                  Each task is suitably different from the last, with a great range of quests to battle your way through. It's nice to see that each mission adds depth and interest to the overall storyline of the title. Cut sequences introduce and conclude each mission, and really flesh out the people that occupy the game world. Thanks to the joyfully cartoonish voice acting and delightfully contrived archetypes, you quickly fall in love with the quirky residents of Bullworth in much the same way you would characters from a good 'popcorn' movie or a light-hearted comic book.

                  It's not a shock to learn that it's the clever scripting and sadistic plotting that truly make the game a delight to play for extended periods of time. Seasonal plotting livens up the game design no end, with Halloween and Christmas both making mission-based appearances during the school year.

                  If anything, the real disappointment is that the experience is over a little too quickly with each of the chapters offering only a limited handful of gaming hours, even within this extended 'Scholarship Edition'.

                  GRAPHICS
                  Although undeniably 'last generation', the game looks remarkably good considering its age. The stuffy academy is littered with scholastic icons; from damaged, decaying lockers to dispirited 'coat of arms' - everything inside the boarding school is rightfully dour and grime-slicked.

                  The last-century architecture continues the visceral feel, with its counter-intuitive building design and disconnected, labyrinthine structure. 'Rockstar' have definitely delivered in this department.

                  The only minor graphical quibbles I have are limited to the ambient smearing that occurs during night sequences; it can be incredibly difficult to see what's going on when you're out in the evenings as the draw depth drops and light trails start to obscure the locales.

                  CONTROLS
                  The real frustration of 'Bully' on the Wii is its controls. While many nice touches have been included thanks to the Nunchuck/Wiimote combination, it rarely provides a satisfying control dynamic.

                  The button layout feels forcibly clumsy, with sudden unwanted actions performed at regular intervals due to the poor arrangement; woe betide the player who unsteadies their hand at the wrong moment - you'll be entering into more accidental scrapes than I dare mention! Detention here we come...

                  Still, as with any game title, once you've learnt the idiosyncrasies, everything becomes pleasingly straightforward. Diehard accuracy is rarely called for, and can usually be wrangled for the short period it's required.

                  CONTROVERSY
                  Naturally, before the game had even come to full fruition, parents and concerned citizens the world over had condemned the game as being a deplorable affair!

                  After all, it's a game about being a depraved tormenter, raining mayhem and destruction down around you, all the while glorifying and glamorising a demonic lifestyle, is it not?!

                  Of course, the reality is quite far removed from this. Instead, 'Bully' presents your character as the antidote to the very situation the game's said to induce; Jimmy's a 'Joe Everyman' who's here to crush the corrupt spirit that roams the school halls, restoring respect and a healthy sense of balance to the world around him (however ugly that process may be)!

                  In fact, the only note of controversy that could reasonably be levied at the game was somewhat overlooked. Some of the depictions of sexuality aren't the healthiest on the planet; for example, the mission 'Panty Raid' requires you to fuel the gym teacher's perversions by gathering up young ladies' underwear - a somewhat disturbing motif taken outside the sardonic context of the game.

                  OVERALL
                  Professional detractors aside, 'Bully' is a small gem lost against the backdrop of generic sandbox clones. Notwithstanding the telltale signs of digital aging, there's still a solid game underneath with bags to do and a darkly amusing plot to push things in the right direction.

                  So long as you can overcome the quirky control mechanics and repetitious lesson plans, you'll discover 'Bully: Scholarship Edition' for the Wii has a lot going for it and well worth a punt if you can grab a discounted copy from your nearest second-hand store.

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                    17.08.2010 14:50
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                    Good quality results for a small amount of effort.

                    INTRODUCTION
                    From price comparison websites to loyalty card points, we all love to grab hold of a bargain. Most of us are happy to save a couple of pennies here and there; the occasional tin of half priced beans and the odd two-for-one deal on shoe polish go a surprisingly long way to lowering the household shop.

                    Therefore, it's appalling to know that so few people realise they're letting tens (if not hundreds) of pounds soak through their fingers every year. I am, of course, referring to financially overinflated world of inkjet cartridges.

                    Having owned various home colour printers over the years, my epiphany came when I realised I could buy a brand new all-in-one printer, scanner and fax for the same price as a single black ink cartridge for my current HP machine.

                    My rebellion against 'big ink' grew after a stranger in the supermarket stopped me from purchasing a cheap 'generic' refill for my machine and suggested I try a 'JR inkjet' kit from eBay instead; the gentleman went on to claim he'd saved well over a thousand pounds in the eight years he'd been doing so!

                    Ordinarily I'd have been a little sceptical of advice given from a random guy in Tescos, but with the entire black ink kit coming in at only £8 I thought it was worthwhile giving it a try. And boy, am I glad I did...

                    THE KIT
                    I've now purchased several different ink sets from a variety of manufacturers, but they all work in the same fundamental way. They feature one or more bottles of ink, a syringe with thick needle, a hole punching device and a couple of plugs to seal the gaps. Sometimes you'll also receive a cleaning solution too, although I've found this to become an increasingly rare proposition.

                    Most of the time you won't require anything but the ink and syringe; the vast majority of ink cartridges already have the required holes hidden under the sticky label on top. Simply peeling away the sticker will reveal the gap through which you can inject the ink.

                    Most refill kits come with several bottles of 30ml ink, but it's doubtful you'd need even a third of that per refill - it depends on whether your printer is conservative about its 'low ink' indicator or not (and believe me, a lot of them are: it's not unheard of to get a warning appear before the cartridge is even half empty)!

                    THE REFILL PROCESS
                    I'd recommend you start by grabbing a pair of disposable latex gloves and plenty of kitchen roll. If there's one thing I can promise, it's that you're going to get ink absolutely EVERYWHERE the first time you try refilling.

                    Having loaded up the syringe, you need to plunge the needle through the appropriate hole, through the sponge and into the reservoir; if you don't go down far enough you'll find the cartridge won't refill to the correct level. Once the ink begins to bubble over the top, you know that you can stop. At this point, blot up any excess ink and leave for several hours for the ink to saturate the sponge and for any air bubbles to dissipate.

                    You'll probably want to rest the cartridge on a stable surface with plenty of old newspaper during this resting phase. Don't, whatever you do, put the refilled cartridge on your finest furniture, as you'll find a newly revitalised inkwell has the tendency to leach out all over your antique heirlooms.

                    PRINTING AGAIN
                    When the cartridge has been adequately rested, simply insert back into the printer and you should be ready to go.

                    There are only really two exceptions to this: Firstly, you may need to clean the print head a couple of times to prevent any streaking or smearing. Secondly, you might find your cartridge needs resetting or realigning depending on the model - these reset tools are fairly inexpensive, and can be found at various retailers around the Internet. Plus, once you've got one, you can reuse it each and every time your ink runs low.

                    REPLACEMENTS
                    Unfortunately, you'll eventually reach the stage when your cartridge can no longer be refilled. This is due to wear and tear of the inkwell, sponge and/or print head. When this happens you'll need to buy another replacement cartridge: yes, you will feel the sting at having to fork-out retail again, but it's a fairly rare event that only happens two or three times during the lifespan of most printers.

                    QUALITY
                    What concerns most people about the whole process of refilling is the quality of ink. After all, this is all sourced without the manufacturers' consent, and surely a bottle of £5 ink cannot compete with that from an official source costing £20 or more?!

                    I'd say, in the vast majority of cases, there's little difference in the overall print quality. The only exception I've witnessed has been printing photos on to glossy paper, but even these were acceptable. For everyday documents and the occasional pie chart, you're really not going to notice a considerable difference between the two.

                    In fact, over the past five years I've found the quality of these kits to be steadily improving - even at the cheaper end of the market. Still not sold? Then I'd recommend testing it out with just the black ink to begin with. See the results you get and compare with those of the official source: I'm betting you'll have a tough time disputing any areas of difference.

                    OVERALL
                    If you're willing to put in twenty minutes worth of effort, you could be saving big over the years with ink refills. My rough estimates put my savings into the arena of £100 a year using both colour and black kits, and I see no reason why heavier users (like small businesses and home offices) couldn't save even bigger!

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