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robinbarfield

robinbarfield
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Member since: 02.02.2010

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    • Asda Slow Cooker / Slow Cooker / 62 Readings / 60 Ratings
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      05.07.2012 22:10
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      Cheap and efficient way of eating

      Many of our busy friends have used slow cookers for years and always told us how wonderful they are. To me it was like paying for a cooker which you already had and needed to find a large storage area for it. Partly it was simply to avoid being like everyone else that we ignored the whole craze for slow cookers.

      Finally we began to be won round to the whole process and lifestyle which comes with a slow cooker and stumbled across a cheap Asda number. The thinking being if we spend less than £10 (it was about £7) and we didn't take to it then we hadn't lost much. We went for the 2.5litre size, expecting to need a larger one for a family of four eventually. Actually it fits our family and allows some to be popped in the freezer for a later occasion.

      So it found its place in a cupboard under our sink and enjoys a regular outing onto the kitchen worktop.

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      What's Cooking - Description
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      The cooker itself is approximately 1 foot cubed, but obviously circular. The main body of the cooker is metal with one button. The button has three settings; off, low and high. There is a small light above which indicates when it is on. This is really refreshing: an electronic device with only one button! So simple, anyone can use it, even me. The basic function of the low and high settings are that low seems to take 8 hours to cook anything, and the high setting takes 4 hours.

      The flex is remarkably short. It's not a huge problem, however, as we tend not to carry it around the kitchen.

      The lid is glass, in the hope that you might be able to see in, but in process it is always covered with water, so that is of little use. There is a small hole to let steam out.

      The main cooking section is a black pot which slots inside the cooker, rests on the heating element and can be removed for cleaning. The main problem with this is that if you have been cooking something for 8 hours then it has a habit of welding itself on. It does do fairly well at coming off, but can take some soaking. There are two small handles for lifting it out. It has been pretty robust so far, although we've never tried putting it in the dishwasher.

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      Chucking it all in - Uses
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      There are some great advantages of slow cooking generally and most of them relate to its sheer simplicity. Most of the time you chop up the ingredients at breakfast and throw them in and switch it on, and by the time you come back at tea-time, it's ready. This means that cheaper cuts of meat can be used, ideal in a recession.

      It can be quite versatile; stews, Bolognese and apparently even sponge puddings (although I have to say we were not very successful with this and it came out a little rubbery). So tonight we had a lovely sweet and sour pork and the meat came out very tender and sweet.

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      Stewing it over - Evaluation
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      You can probably guess that I've been won over by slow cooking, and the Asda bottom of the range version has done us absolutely fine. It is so simple that you can't really go wrong with it. When there is only one button then there is only one button that can break.

      The main problem is storing space as it is quite large, which seems ridiculous when we already have a cooker with a timer. However the slow cooker claims to be more energy efficient, which I can well believe. It claims to take up the energy of a light bulb and it says 168-200W on the base, so I guess it's right.

      I wouldn't want to eat from this every night, meat and sauce can get a bit much but its well worth having and using once you get the hang of it.

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        03.07.2012 21:27
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        Lots of extra plugs

        There's a trick which most salesmen play. It's the one where they offer you a 'really good deal' on something you don't really need just as you're about to pay. It's only when you get home and think about it a bit harder do you realise that not only have you bought something you never needed, but you also paid over the odds for it.

        I rarely fall for it, even when it is a good deal and I do need it, but a few years ago while buying a laptop I was sold the Belkin Surgeprotector and told how important it is. It was 'reduced' to £25 and having 6 plug sockets to its name I threw it in the basket with the laptop. After all, what's an extra £25 when you're buying a laptop?

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        Was that you Belkin? - Surge Protecting
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        I had no idea what a surge protector was nor whether I needed it. Apparently it protects the electronic device from sudden spikes in voltage whether from lightning or other sources. This would ruin a laptop and even turning it on and off would create 'electrical imbalances'. Most people who know what they're talking about nod knowingly with this and would say a surgemaster is absolutely essential. My problem is, in 10 years of using laptops and desk computers I have never experienced any damage caused by this and I've lived in houses with pretty dodgy wiring and old appliances. Occasionally I've unplugged something when a thunderstorm approaches but in seems more likely that a spike in mains electric would be broken by a basic household or business fusebox or tripswitch. A lightning strike is pretty rare and fairly predictable by looking out the window. I am more than happy to admit my ignorance here but the whole apparatus seems a little superfluous. And given the short amount of time electrical equipment lasts for and the need to back up data anyway, why bother with something like this?

        This seems to be scaring you into buying something unnecessary.

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        Watt does it look like?
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        The main body is approx 15cm by 30cm with a 1m cable. There is an on/off switch at the top and most of the body is taken up by 6 three-pin plug sockets. Now this is useful. It's rare to get 6 plug sockets in an adapter and this comes in handy in a corner with few sockets and an abundance of electrical items. There is quite a bit of space for larger block style plugs.

        Then at the base there is a grey bar which looks like a spoiler on the rear of a car. The intention of this seems to be to tuck the cables under and keep them tidy. This has been a waste of time for me. If you're really into keeping cables tidy this is will not be good enough, and if you are not then you won't bother. I never have, to be honest I had no idea what it was for.

        Then on the base there are three phone / modem sockets; one input and two outputs. These are to protect from 'catastrophic surges'. Talk about overplaying your hand or overegging the pudding. Next to these are an input and an output for a TV cable. I have never had any use for any of these and have never suffered any 'catastrophic' consequences.

        On the rear are two crosses which, I presume, are for wall mounting. Look, this is not something you are ever going to wall mount.

        The whole box is really quite sturdy, as it should be, but it is also quite bulky for a mere adapter plug. It sits happily under the shelving which our TV and Hi-Fi sit on but I wouldn't want to use it elsewhere. And I've never used more than 3-4 of the 6 plug sockets so could easily have bought something far simpler and cheaper. Sometimes its good to go belt and braces on electrical items, but this was more like handcuffs!

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        Should have greater resistance - Evaluation
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        No doubt I will be corrected on how useful this is, but it has never been of any value to me except as a standard adaptor cable. And even for that it doesn't give a very long lead. None of the fears of the selling features have ever come to pass. I can't help but feel quite cross about the whole thing, particularly when I see one on sale on Amazon for about £15. It was one of those offers that never was, sold on fear and pushed on commission. I've never had great experiences in PC World and I've made mistakes there which have cost me more, but this one rankles as one of their most bully boy.

        So it's fine if you're looking for an adaptor but sells itself as something much more.

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          29.06.2012 16:00
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          Good reliable model for young dental hygeine

          After getting a Colgate Barbie toothbrush for my daughter and her loving it and suddenly having no problem getting her to brush her teeth we decided to be on the lookout for one for our son too. He is only three and so we wanted to make sure that he was okay to have one. Having checked with the dentist that this was fine we looked in the bargain shops for a similar device to our daughters. Add to that his regular pressure to have a toothbrush like his sisters and the decision was straightforward.

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          Webslinging - The Purchase
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          It took a while to find a suitably priced battery powered toothbrush for our son. It took waiting for the right one to come along rather than jumping at the first one we saw. Eventually we picked up this Colgate Spiderman battery powered toothbrush for a little more than the Barbie one we bought for our daughter, it cost £1.99. This was a little more than we wanted to pay but since we have been so happy with the other Colgate battery powered toothbrush we were happy to pay a little more.

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          Spidey-senses - The Design
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          The toothbrush itself has a larger handle area than a non-electric version where the batteries and the mechanics sit. The head is a double; a circle which vibrates and a semi circle beneath, each with blue inner bristles and white outer.

          The bulk of the body is red with a picture of Spiderman hanging upside down and slinging some web. It's all very exciting! The strange thing is that Spiderman doesn't even have any teeth. Quite how he is an example of oral hygiene, I'm not sure. I guess Peter Parker has teeth which, being American, will no doubt be perfect and shiny white. But Spiderman covers up his teeth.

          To replace the batteries the base needs to be unscrewed with a particularly small headed screwdriver. This may be an added complication in some households.

          There is an 'on' button and an 'off' button at the top of the handle. I presume this is because its cheaper, but a single button would be easier for a child. There is a rubber seal round the battery holder to prevent water getting in a eroding the contacts. This generally works but tends to gradually wear down.

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          Getting rid of the bad guys - Evaluation
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          Well, the thrill of using this toothbrush hasn't gone away for my son after a few months. We still need to do a bit ourselves to make sure every tooth is done, but I have more confidence that when he does it himself he is doing more than just sucking the bristles as he did with his old manual toothbrush. We now have to tell him to stop cleaning and put it away!

          The Spiderman design is probably a little old for him, he'd prefer Roary or Bob the Builder but this is still exciting for him. He keeps referring to Spiderman as Superman, so there is some confusion to clear up.

          We haven't changed the batteries yet, but we're expecting them to last for a good 6 weeks, similar to the equivalent model which his sister has. However, already the battery compartment of this device is holding up better than the Barbie version, despite them being identical.

          Our son isn't the best at looking after his belongings so most things he handles need to be robust. So far this is passing the test. There is no evidence of cracking, bumps, damage or electrical issues despite numerous droppings and thumpings.

          So although this cost us a little more, on the experience of other toothbrushes in the range we felt it was worth it. And so far we haven't been disappointed!

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            26.06.2012 19:49
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            Does the job well

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            Getting Mouthy - intro
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            My little girl was not particularly keen on brushing her teeth. Don't get me wrong, we made certain that the deed is done morning and night, but it was the bare minimum and was done with little love and care. We spoke to the dentist about electric toothbrushes, simply because we have found that they have given us a better clean as adults, and he suggested the battery operated toothbrushes rather than the mains charged versions.

            My wife kept her eye out for a while and found the Colgate Barbie battery operated toothbrush in a bargain shop for £1. This is as cheap as some of the manually operated versions and came with batteries included, of the AAA version.

            Of course my daughter was excited when she saw it and has been keen to clean since and it has saved us the job of going over them again just to make sure.

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            Fangs very much - description
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            The toothbrush itself has a larger handle area than a non-electric version where the batteries and the mechanics sit. The head is a double; a circle which vibrates and a semi circle beneath, each with blue inner bristles and white outer.

            The bulk of the body is purple with a picture of Barbie sitting on a sofa taking off her shoe. Naturally Barbie has a beautiful set of white gnashers. After all it would be odd to put a picture on where she has a badly cleaned, yellowing set. I'm not entirely convinced Barbie is great for my daughter's body image, so I keep telling her as she brushes that she doesn't need to look like that. I think she's getting a bit fed up with me now. I think there may be variations in the design, Barbie does other exciting things besides take off her shoes. Sometimes she's combing her hair, others she's just smiling; that's hard work.

            To replace the batteries, as we have done three times now, the base needs to be unscrewed with a particularly small headed screwdriver. This may be an added complication in some households.

            There are two separate on/off buttons towards the top of the handle. What I mean is that there is an 'off' button and an 'on' button. Hmm, I'm beginning to wonder if Barbie is sharper than I am?

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            Say Tartar to bedtime battles - evaluation
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            So, we now have more enthusiasm for the brushing but I'm convinced that, in general, my daughter has cleaner teeth. We have just had an issue with a wobbly tooth where the surrounding teeth turned yellow because it hurt to clean. But that would have happened with any toothbrush, so I can't blame Barbie for that.

            I have always been surprised at how long these toothbrushes last. It's much longer than any other toothbrush we've owned. And it isn't battery hungry either. There has been a slight issue with the batteries not quite connecting of late and the model needing a bump on the bottom to get it going. But I would say its got at least another six months wear left. We have tried other brands of this type of toothbrush but they tend not to last as long.

            Quite simply, it does the job in our household and there will be no going back to the old style brushes except perhaps when we go away on holiday.

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              03.06.2012 15:41
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              Solid and dependable

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              'You've got the braun, I've got the brains. Let's make lots of money'
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              When our last hand blender broke, a number of years ago, we had a small kitchen and a small family and a small blender was needed. Something versatile, that could be packed away quickly. Often we've found that buying the cheapest model is false economy, but knew Braun to be a fairly reliable brand and were tempted by the Multi-quick model as it has quite a number of functions and can be used for various kitchen tasks.

              At the time we had a small baby, she's not so small now. Our tea needed to be blended to smithereens to make it palatable for her. The Braun fitted this well, too.

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              'I've got the brains, you've got the looks. Let's make lots of money'
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              Essentially the Multiquick is made up of two parts; the handle which provides the power; and the four adaptor parts which slot on the end. The handle has a nice weight to it with non-slip grips, it measures about the size of a fist. The flex comes out from this and has a plug at the end. Sadly it's not chargeable, and the flex is fairly short, which can limit certain jobs. I note they now do a cordless version, which I imagine helps considerably.

              There are three attachments:
              1) For blending and pureeing there is the long, tulip shaped part with a double pronged sharp blade which spins inside the head. This is great for baby food, but I've also used it for soups and it works very well. The advantage of this is that you can blend the soup in the pan, which saves on washing up and makes the whole process very neat. It also comes with a Perspex tub which you can blend small amounts, probably about a litre. This is a helpful addition as the problem with blending is you can quickly cover your kitchen walls with cream of mushroom soup or some such but, as this is tall and high, it contains any blending that needs to be done.
              2) The whisk. This is about 6 inches long and is a single whisk, useful for cream, eggs and cakes. Sadly our whisk has broken at the end, but it still seems to function.
              3) Chopping and mincing: this is a sharp, double pronged knife which rotates either in the supplied bowl or without. This is pretty sharp and rotates well to chop herbs and spices as well as harder substances like parmesan. The bowl is useful too as the chopper slots into place within it and the base is covered with a non-slip surface and is flat bottomed. This is probably the least used of all the attachments for us, but it would depend on what you wanted to use it for, and I suspect if we made more meals from scratch then this would get more use.


              All of these attachments can be washed up simply, unlike the handle, which cannot.

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              My Car is parked outside, I'm afraid it doesn't work'
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              We've happily used this blender for a number of years now and would recommend it. It works well with a small kitchen and a small family. I suppose we may have to consider changing up at some stage; however that's just not what we use it for.

              We don't seem to have the wall mount as pictured, suspect we through that out a while ago as we were never going to use it. Instead it sits in a box in the cupboard.

              But this model is robust and efficient and not really showing signs of age overly. This is surprising as often the plastic in these devices yellows and ages. Braun seems to make devices which last longer than the average which is always quite pleasing when you're as miserly as me!

              'If you've got the inclination, I've got the crime'
              (Lyrics courtesy of the Pet Shop Boys)

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              • Nokia N97 mini / Smartphone / 56 Readings / 53 Ratings
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                01.06.2012 14:32
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                Tries to do more than it can

                My problem is that I need a phone that makes calls and sends texts, but when I look on my providers website for a suitable handset, I'm enticed by fancy phones which promise to do everything for you. These handsets inevitably fail me and are never strong enough to withstand a lifetime in my pocket. With weeks something tends to go wrong and I'm left with the limp shell of a device and some hold music in my ears as I try and sort it all out.

                Well, I did the same again with my latest phone and I've regretted it ever since! Touchscreen, ooh, yes please! Internet access, that sounds fun. Full, qwerty keyboard, mmm, great. All as part of my monthly deal!

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                The Good
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                The Nokia N97 mini is a sleek device which looks impressive. The face is mostly screen which then flips up to reveal the qwerty keyboard. This function works well and is pretty useful. It helps to type out emails without having to use predictive text.

                It has a built in camera and video, which is okay. I wouldn't use it for holiday snaps and you never get more than a you-tube quality grainy image, but it can be quite fun for updating friends quickly with a picture message. It's quite fun a have a family photo greet you as you unlock the device using the slider on the side. The camera is quite accessible, too, as there are two buttons on the side to switch on and zoom in and out.

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                The Bad
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                The internet access is fine, the issue for me was that I rarely want it as it costs me 50p a day. But the handset has a knack of attaching to the internet in my pocket (more of this later) and I get hit with a larger than expected bill at the end of the month.

                The games that come free with it are poor, I never use the calendar and very little of the music function, although I have occasionally tried to use it to change my ringtone. The most surprising thing for me is that with all these functions which I don't use, the one function which I have had occasion to use is absent; the stopwatch. A Nokia phone without a stopwatch! I've had occasion when I've told people this and they've treated me like an idiot, fair enough, and grabbed the phone telling me that they'll find it for me. Sure, enough, they hand it back, humbled and murmur, 'No, no stopwatch!'

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                The Ugly
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                The main problem for me with this phone is the touchscreen. Half the time it doesn't respond to touch, prod, knuckle or even my nose, which has been tried on occasion. This just makes the whole experience really frustrating. Writing text messages is impossible when you can't select the person you need to send it, too. Worse, when a call comes through, sometimes it can't be answered. I then need to wait and phone them back. Seriously frustrating.

                Similarly, it is not well built enough to survive in my pocket. This is the second one I've had in 18months; the battery failed on the first, the back is falling off the second.

                And the slide on the side which locks and unlocks it is not pocket-proof. Various friends have received calls and texts with the delights of trouser noise. This isn't unusual in phones but the design of this model makes it particularly bad. It's cost me a lot financially, too.

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                And the Technophobe
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                I'm sure there are lots more features on this phone, but to be honest I have no idea what they are never mind how they work or whether they're good or not. I could give you loads of stats but they'd be meaningless to me and probably to most of you, too. All that matters to me is the following, and this is my experience of this phone:

                Can it make calls: Most of the time
                Can it receive calls: sometimes
                Can it send and receive texts: Mostly
                Is it more frustrating than it is worth: Absolutely!

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                  26.05.2012 21:32
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                  Very straightforward and simple machine

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                  Logging-on - Introduction
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                  I love books and I love reading. Having previously had one of the lesser known brands of e-reader when they first came out, I made the decision to switch to the Kindle. The main reason was that I simply wasn't buying e-books. The availability was poor and the cost was equivalent with paper books. In the end it was pointless having it. And yet every time I looked on Amazon there was a Kindle version cheaper than I could buy it in print. As much as I detested giving the Amazon behemoth my business I had to concede that there was no avoiding it. So I sold up and bought the, at the time, new budget version at £89.

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                  Sparking Up - Opening the box
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                  The first thing that strikes you as you open the box is the sheer size of the Kindle. It is sleek and light and tiny. They claim its 170g and I'm not inclined to disagree. It is a thing of design beauty and fits very snugly in my hand. With just 2 buttons on either side and 5 along the bottom, it is remarkably simple as well. There is a simple on/off button on the base and a micro-usb port for charging it.

                  The second thing that struck me on its first use was how quick it was to get it up and running. I had it online in minutes and was downloading my first book. This is where the Kindle is streets ahead of my previous machine. Previously it meant booting up the laptop and buying the book, then getting out the USB cable to attach laptop to reader and transferring it across. The Kindle just makes it so much simpler.

                  However the third thing that struck me on opening was that there was a Kindle and a USB cable. That's it! No charger, or protective case. Now, admittedly, all the essentials are there; the Kindle only needs to be plugged into a computer to charge it, but when one of its selling points is that a computer isn't even needed, this seems quite disappointing. And the Kindle itself is so sparse and so Spartan that it could do with some softening. It is just too bare and angular, and feels odd reading it without a cover. And to provide no protective sleeve appears miserly.

                  So I embarked on buying a cover. The official Amazon cover with light for this machine is £50, not far off the total price. And I had some bad experiences with some of the other covers which were being sold through Amazon. No matter, these are minor grumbles as I ended up picking up a lovely cover and a plug charger very cheaply. So cheaply I wondered why Amazon didn't bother supplying them in the first place!

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                  Ashes to Ashes - Durability
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                  The battery is good. I cannot say a lot more than that as I haven't measured how long it lasts; it's very hard to quantify. However it strikes me as better than the previous e-reader I owned, which was much heavier. It claims to last for a month, I think this is overdoing it but I can't complain.

                  Amazon also claims it holds up to 1,400 books. Another vague and untestable claim! It may do, I haven't bought 1,400 books to test it. And the point is, with the Amazon system, you don't need 1,400 books on it as they store them on-line for you. All I can say is that it stores enough books for me to read before I get back to my computer to sort it all out again.

                  The e-ink system is good, too. It's been an incredibly sunny day today and I was out in the sunshine reading happily. If anything, it's easier as it's less reflective than paper and won't give me a headache.

                  The set-up of the page is helpful, too. Along the bottom of the screen is a bar which charts your progress through the book. With most books the chapters are marked too so you can see how far is left to read.

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                  Puffs of Smoke - Frustrations
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                  One of my main frustrations is the protection system Amazon put on their books. I know this isn't a review of the Kindle per se, but it's an inevitable part of owning one. When you buy an Amazon e-book you are not buying the equivalent of a print book. You cannot lend it (despite what the help manual says). You cannot give it as a present (their one-click purchase system is very inflexible too).

                  And when I buy a new print book I expect it to be unmarked. When I buy one from Amazon it comes with underlines and highlights from other people, hundreds of them. There may be a way of switching off this feature but I'm yet to find it.

                  Another frustration is that publishers are lazy when it comes to Kindle versions. There are regularly typos and misaligned words. This bothers me, it may not bother you. It happens much less with printed books.

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                  More Lukewarm than Fired-Up - Summary
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                  This is in general a great machine and the system is well designed. It is a thing of beauty and functions very well. But the frustrations mentioned above makes it feel like Amazon are like the big bully boy of the market and I use it grudgingly rather than joyously because of this.

                  Advantages:
                  Size
                  Feel
                  Look
                  Simplicity of use

                  Disadvantages:
                  Lending
                  Others highlights
                  General miserliness of Amazon

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                    15.01.2012 21:09
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                    Too easy a target

                    Britain and America look similair; we speak the same language and call ourselves close allies, etc. And yet there is the paradox that actually we are culturally quite different. One of these differences which has always struck me is the difference in church culture between these two countries, particularly evangelical church culture. In Britain the Christian church has tended to be left leaning, pushing for a social welfare state where the underprivileged are cared for and health care is free for all. This has generally been more dominant than issues of abortion or traditional family values and the church has traditionally had more in agreement with Labour values that with Conservative. Of course there are exceptions but, as a general rule, this seems to have been the case. The Christian faith inevitably is neither left nor right but in Britain this is how the issues have played out.

                    America, however, seems more than just the Atlantic Ocean away when it comes to the political leanings of the evangelical church. Abortion is the key issue and the political ideals seem to outweigh any desire to help the poor and needy on a governmental level. Charles Marsh's argument is that this has left American evangelicals redefining the Christian faith on the basis of party politics and in the pockets of Republican party.

                    Charles Marsh is Professor of Religion and Director of the Project on Lived Theology (!) at the University of Virginia. In this book he sets about seeking to set free the gospel from being chained to one particular party. In doing so he makes some salient points: 'some 87 percent of American evangelicals supported going to war, while every single evangelical church outside the United States opposed it. The Jesus who storms into Baghdad behind the wheel of Humvee is not the Jesus of the Gospel. Indeed not since the nazification of the German church under Hitler has the political misuse of Christianity led to such catastrophic global consequences.' Strong words! And words that I felt needed to be spoken.

                    And often in this book he makes that case well, time and again pointing out where the church has fallen short and not challenged the ruling elite. When he argues from historical examples he makes a particularly strong case. However, more often than not he uses the 'straw man' argument ie look at this terrible example, therefore the opposite must be the case. This ultimately leaves the book being unconvincing to anyone who didn't generally agreeing with him anyway. I suspect it would not move the very people he is aiming it at.

                    Similarly some of his conclusions seem quite tenuous and actually betray the fact that he hasn't understood the people he is speaking to. For example he speaks of the way forward being one of quiet rather than one of noise, ie periods of peace and meditation. This is pretty easy to dismiss out of hand and leaves him looking eccentric and slightly foolish, in my view.

                    Ultimately an unsatisfying book which I wouldn't particularly recommend, even if you happened to have some interest in the subject or, like him, are astonished by the political involvement of the American church. Best avoided in my opinion.

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                      13.01.2012 11:22
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                      Rules and Freedom

                      I have always had a fascination with the Amish, and it seems I am not the only one as recent TV series, such as Living with the Amish and World's Squarest Teenagers, show. America, too, it seems is fascinated with its own kind. These communities seem to amaze onlookers as they reject most modern comforts, dress strangely and speak different languages. I presume it is part astonishment and part envy at the simple life they lead, a harkening for a world which we wish was still with us.

                      My previous encounter with literature about the Amish was Amish Grace, which was ostensibly a sympathetic observers view of the Amish response to a terrible shooting by a local man. I have reviewed it on Dooyoo, and I mention it here because I remember being struck by how nice it all sounded and how sensible it all seemed; their rules made sense when explained and even quite liberating from the modern technologies which have such a degrading effect on our sense of community.

                      Growing Up Amish could not be more different. This is, as the title suggest, an insiders account of what it is like to grow up in these communities. As the ninth child of one of the leading lights in the Amish community, Ira Wagler grew up with a love/hate relationship with his surroundings. At 16 he finally made the decision to leave, only to return, and leave again, a dozen times over the next few years. At one stage he was about to marry before deciding that he had to get away. Each time he acknowledges that he caused his family, and fiancée, great pain and heartache.

                      What are his reasons? Well, where Amish Grace focused on their general rules, such as no telephones and cars, and explained them sensibly, Wagler makes clear that sensible big rules also result in crazy little rules. So the Amish would disagree about whether the wheels of their carts ('buggies') should have rubber tyres or traditional wooden ones. They would argue about just how long their beards should be (see recent BBC news website reports for evidence of this). In the end these little rules became so binding and constraining that Wagler found it stifling. He could never live up to the expectations of these rules and felt time and again that he had to leave.

                      However leaving was never easy. It's not just about leaving your family and friends but about leaving your world. Everything about 'normal' society is alien when you have lived as an Amish. It reminds me of the Falashes, an Ehtiopian tribe who claimed Jewish heritage, only to be moved from their mud huts to shiny tower blocks with offices. The culture shock must have been immense!

                      But Wagler does not hold back on what he got up to and his desire to break free in every way from his upbringing. Although he never holds it up as an example of which he is proud. It did help me to understand certain elements of their society which I had previously misunderstood. So the period of Rumspringa where they 'allow' their teenagers to roam free and taste the world, is apparently wrong. Often Amish teenagers do roam free for a year, but it is never because the adults let them or are happy with it.

                      Ira Wagler writes with a lightness of touch which makes this book very interesting reading and unput-downable. There is an Americanism about his turn of phrase, but then that's exactly what I expected! It did begin to grate towards the end of the book. However the pathos with which he writes and the story itself carried me along.

                      I will not give away the ending except to say that the purpose of his writing seems to be exploring, through his life, what it means to be fully free. The intriguing nature of this results in him discovering freedom both within the Amish community but also freedom to leave it. It is ultimately a sad tale of how one groups search for perfection and community, and their desire to protect that community, has led to a stifling way of life.

                      [Not quite sure why Dooyoo has put this under Junior Books, seems a bit odd!]

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                        11.11.2011 14:28
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                        A delight of an instrument

                        ======
                        'And you fly all around 'till somebody shoots you down' - BACKGROUND
                        ======
                        I lost my first guitar to a flying carpet, or rather a falling carpet. There is no hidden meaning in that statement. I'd rested my original and cheap South Korean copy against the upstairs banisters of the house I was sharing with some friends, while another of us went into the loft to retrieve an old rug. Unfortunately the rug slipped out of his hands and gravity did its work on my old faithful and the whole instrument snapped in two in the centre like a successful karate chop.

                        Having taken it down to my local independent music shop, an anonymous affair on a South London backstreet, it became pretty clear that it was unrepairable and a new guitar was needed. The shop assistant was so helpful that I gave him my business. Being left handed meant that I was very limited and had narrowed it down to the few brands who bother to make models for the sinister amongst us, when the Seagull really took my fancy.

                        ======
                        'Fly to your tomorrow, leave me to my sorrow, fly.' - THE COMPANY
                        ======
                        Seagull began in 1982 and intend to make solid top guitars at affordable prices. A solid top guitar is one where the flat top (the side with the strings and sound hole) is made of solid wood. This is unlike my South Korean copy which was laminated, seriously affecting the quality of the sound.

                        They originate in Canada and the S6 is from their Original series.

                        ======
                        'Here is a man asking the question / Is this really the end of the world?' - THE INSTRUMENT
                        ======
                        The Cedar S6 is so called as it has a cedar solid top. They also make them with spruce but comment that they are both much the same. The sides are cherry wood. All this adds up to give it a richly resonant tone which immediately struck me after the cheaper model that I had been playing on.

                        It also means it looks good. It has a deep, reddy brown colour which immediately sets it apart from other models which look cheap (even if they aren't) with their very obviously laminated tops. It is a thing of real beauty.

                        I initially chose this model as it has a slightly wider neck than some making it ideal for finger picking. I have changed my style of playing since then and mostly use it for leading songs up front. This requires it to produce enough sound to lead hearty singing from more than 200 children. And it does, in fact it often drowns them out and I have to reduce my strum strength mid-song. However as hinted at before, it also has the versatility to produce a sweet and subtle lead.

                        There are all sorts of details on their website explaining how they can do this ('maple dowels running into the neck') but I cannot tell you whether this causes it to sound so good. What I can tell you is that it does sound good and it is versatile in its uses.

                        Obviously the tone varies given the strings you use and your technique but you cannot produce a sweet tone from a duff instrument. Given the correct strings and technique the Seagull will reward your investment.

                        I have had this model now for over a decade and it is significant that they are still producing them. Mine has been very well used and, although it has bumps and scrapes and bashes from use, I have no desire to trade it in for another model. I enjoy it too much for that.

                        ======
                        'Now you fly, through the sky, never asking why' - COSTS AND OTHER ISSUES
                        ======
                        Some considerations: It comes with the strap button already fixed to the outer edge but not behind the neck. It also has no pick up attached, and if you strum vigorously, like me, you will find some damage below the pickguard. It also has dot inlays and a tapered headstock (the top bit where you tune) to make tuning easier.

                        I picked mine up for about £450 and it seems to be available for about the same price today. This is good value for the quality of guitar on offer, my opinion is that you could spend a lot more and not get as good a guitar as this. Particularly if you are a lefty, its worth looking into Seagull's range.

                        ======
                        Apologies for technical guitar terms used here. I have tried to qualify and explain where possible.

                        Headings are taken from the song 'Seagull' by Bad Company. If anyone knows what this song is about, please let me know (and please don't tell me it's about a seagull)!

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                          07.11.2011 12:11
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                          A personal journey through grief

                          I have very vivid memories of Christmas 2004; my wife was heavily pregnant and we were staying at my parents in the wilds of Scotland. Due to the nature of the Christmas period and where we were there was little contact with any forms of news. It was not until late on the 27th that we heard about a tsunami in the Indian Ocean and, I'm ashamed to say, I paid it little attention. Realising the scale of the disaster was a gradual process over the next few days and it was not until a week later that I heard that my old school friend's brother had disappeared with his girlfriend, both presumed dead. They were 2 amongst the quarter of a million others who died in that tragedy.

                          I say this up front to make you aware that this is not and could not be an impartial review of a new book, however I am not sure anyone could read his prose and stay impartial. Simon Stephenson writes with such soaring beauty of his search for some kind of peace following his brother's death that one cannot fail to be moved. His tale involves recounting the astonishing journeys he makes to the resort of Phi Phi where his brother, Dominic, spent his final days with his girlfriend, Eileen. But these are interspersed with related memories of their childhood, spanning family holidays and favourite movies.

                          Simon describes his feelings in a way so evocative that I could not hold back tears and he often brings out such ironies in his strange situations that the next breath brings laughter. His journey takes him through the pain of the funeral, a very public affair, where he was not allowed to see the body despite being a doctor; to the disillusionment with his screen writing career; to Phi Phi to mark the exact spot of Dominic and Eileen's last night; to a remarkable meeting with Gordon Brown. There are many other twists in this tale which I will not give away but need to be read to be believed.

                          But Stephenson's work is more than a tale, a story to amuse. In many ways it is a letter to his brother, in other ways it is a description of the process of grieving. Not that it is an example or a lesson. I guess we never know how we will grieve until we need to, Simon certainly never expected to.

                          Have I got criticisms? This isn't really the kind of book that can be criticised, it is too personal for that. Every page brought forth a response but that was part of the intention, indeed the intention of every book. And I responded in all sorts of ways.

                          One of his comments towards the beginning of the book really made me think. With a career in short stories and TV drama's Simon was used to writing three acts, where the third act always resulted in a happy ending, a positive resolution of some kind. However with grief he states that there is no happy ending, there is no moment when the hero returns having defeated the enemy. For me there is still hope even in death; there is a third act yet to come, but in the meantime we are left feeling that the story has not yet been completed.

                          The layout of this book is interesting, too; for each unnumbered chapter acts as a short story in and of itself which all add up to the whole later but equally could be read separately. This probably reflects something of his background, first finding success as a short story writer where each piece of prose has to be a self contained whole. Does this work in a book? Yes, but it makes it unusual, and occasionally disjointed, but no less enjoyable.

                          Here's an beautiful example of Stephenson's prose:
                          'It was a desolation, an emptiness, a sense that freezing winter wind had snuffed out every burning candle in every church and temple on earth. It was the sudden realisation that several months go some twisted surgeon had put me to sleep, removed my heart, and sewn me back up without ever admitting what it was that he had done to me...I had seen his coffin, had touched it with my hand, and now I realised that I was forever consigned to wander alone and without a heart, in a dark and freezing world.'

                          304p, published by John Murray, RRP £16.99

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                          • Casio F91W1XY / Watch / 61 Readings / 54 Ratings
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                            28.10.2011 13:34
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                            It's a basic watch!

                            ------
                            Breakfast - Intro
                            ------
                            I have been through so many watches in my middle aged life. I have had fancy swatches in the 1980's, chic metal affairs, and lovely leather strapped analogues. But none of them have lasted long, no matter how much or how little I have spent on them. After spending £70 on a particular favourite only to have a toddler drop it on a concrete floor I decided to go cheap. And I decided to go classic. And the Casio F-91W fitted the bill. At only £8.99 from Argos it fitted my bill exactly.

                            ------
                            Elevenses - The look
                            ------
                            The Casio F-91W is going to win no awards for beauty. It's classic in a retro 1980's manner but, quite honestly, I find it pretty ugly. My desire for a watch would be a deep brown leather strap with a gloriously simple gold face. Not a square, black digital number which screams at you 'I'm functional' every time you check to see whether it's lunch.

                            ------
                            Lunchtime - Comfort
                            ------
                            And nor is it particularly comfortable. I find the harsh plastic strap is completely the wrong dimensions for my wrist and the watch ends up sitting almost sideways on my arm regularly having a little jaunt towards my elbow or my thumb. It is a million miles away from the snug, gentle fit of a worn leather affair, but then it's a million pounds away from the snug, gentle fit of a worn leather affair which would end up snagged on the corner of the kitchen worktop and torn beyond repair.

                            ------
                            Afternoon Tea - Problems
                            ------
                            It is also ubiquitous. Every man and his dog has one of these. Rather every Guantanamo detainee and his bomb has one of these if a recent Guardian newspaper report is to be believed! But its bomb making potential merely underlines its unsophisticated reliability which serves its owners so well. It so rarely fails and so rarely breaks, no matter how hard I try in the hope of being able to buy a nicer one. It is like the Starbucks of watches, there is one everywhere you look and if you don't mind being a corporate clone then it will suit just fine.

                            ------
                            Dinner Time - Features
                            ------
                            There are a number of useful features, merely a handful compared to other digital watches on the market, but then I don't need to be able to turn my oven on from the office via satellite and this Casio has just the few things which a simple man, like myself, truly needs: a light; an alarm and a stopwatch. It lacks water resistance for those scuba diving trips to the bottom of the bath to fish out the kids toys, but personally I cannot stand having a wet wrist under a watch strap anyway.

                            ------
                            Suppertime - My own personal clumsiness!
                            ------
                            I do have the frustration of catching the buttons either on my wrist or the pocket of my jeans so that I suddenly find that I have turned the alarm on by mistake or have set the stopwatch going. But I realise I am making it sound as if I have dyspraxia by the number of watch related accidents I have so I must not overplay this point. Others are probably far more careful than me.

                            ------
                            Out of time - Summary
                            ------
                            £8.99, tells you when to have lunch and when to wake up.

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                              17.06.2011 15:39
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                              The Best in Class

                              ---------
                              Intro - the Intro
                              ---------
                              Most guitar players are experts at everything guitar and have an opinion on everything guitar related. I have never particularly been that sort of guitarist. Not that I am not opinionated, a little too much. But simply that I have always enjoyed the playing of the instrument more than the instrument and all its accoutrements. Different shades of pick-ups and humbuckers have never floated my boat. But I have also had to come to some kind of conclusion regarding plectra (apparently this is the correct plural of plectrum).

                              My need and experience are twofold; firstly, I have to lead songs before groups of a few hundred at a time. I therefore need a plectrum which is reliable, is not easily dropped but also has enough strength to produce a strong sound. But, secondly, I am also learning jazz guitar where the world is divided between purists who despise such bits of plastic, and those who use a plectrum to pick out a tune.

                              ---------
                              Verse - Design and Use
                              ---------
                              Plectra, however come in all shapes and sizes as well as designs. Choosing one is a matter of personal preference and need. Often the more garish the design, the more sought after they are (certainly when it comes to 8 year old boys, whom I teach).

                              The plectrum itself has the purpose of either picking the string or strumming all 6 strings of a chord, with the intention of making a louder, more vibrant, sound than when using the fingers. It certainly creates a harsher sound and saves the pain of blistering. They are rounded triangles of plastic, nylon in the case of Jim Dunlop, which vary in price considerably between makes and designs.

                              ---------
                              Chorus - 'Picking' the right one
                              ---------
                              Jim Dunlop plectra are wonderfully ubiquitous. They are the first ones you see when asking the vaguely whiffy, long haired, grunting teenage assistant in the guitar shop to see their range. As his breaking voice passes the selection across there will be ones with designs which look like they were drawn sometime in the mid 1980's, but in the centre of the box will be a series of rather dull coloured Jim Dunlops which simply speak of 'serious' guitar playing. While 8 year old boys may be drawn to the large, black bits of plastic with a fluorescent pink skull and 'Elves of Essex' emblazoned on, I have always preferred the more mundane basics of those pictured above, which come in shades of grey.

                              The advantage of these basic Dunlop picks are that they have a non-slip grip. The nylon is slightly raised in dots to prevent those sweaty fingers dropping it mid-gig. Incidentally the horror of this occurrence led Buddy Holly to wear his glasses on stage. This makes this design slightly more user friendly. The colourful design cannot be seen when used, anyway; a similair argument could be made for dull underwear!

                              This range of plectrum comes in an assortment of thicknesses: 0.38, 0.46, 0.60, 0.73, 0.88 and 1.00mm. Personally I have found the 0.38 a little too thin. The noise they make is a little tinny and not loud enough. It's a bit like flapping a newspaper across some railings. On the other hand the 1.00mm is too thick to suit my needs and is for picking out a single line on a string, for lead guitar. I have tended to settle on the 0.60mm which is loud enough to fill a hall but still enables strumming out a tune.

                              ---------
                              Bridge - The Price
                              ---------
                              This range of Jim Dunlop plectra tend to retail at about 40p, less if you buy in bulk. I am in two minds as to whether this is a good price or not.

                              Yes - it's a good price in that 40p is not a lot of money and these are made to an exact thickness.
                              No - it's not a good price because they are simply a small bit of plastic and a regular user will need loads of them as they disappear everywhere; the back of the sofa, in the car, in the washing machine. I always have one in my pocket and it is forever getting pulled out with my keys and dropped.

                              ---------
                              Coda - Summary
                              ---------
                              These are probably the most popular picks in the world and with good reason. Although they are dull to look at, they are reliable and good quality. I just wish they were a little cheaper.

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                                27.05.2011 11:05
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                                An astounding life story

                                My interest in the Middle East conflict is more than a passing one. I do not pretend to understand it; like so many of these places torn by internal strife, take Northern Ireland and the Baltics, it seems to be beyond comprehension. The numbers of factions which arise and split and spread fear are too often so complex that it makes no sense to the inhabitants, never mind a curios observer. But the Israel / Palestine situation has a certain fascination for me. I have Jewish ancestry, but would not claim to be pro-Israeli, and I am a Christian. But to hear the pro-Israeli American rhetoric leaves me aghast and confused. When I hear of the indigenous Christian community being caught in the middle because of these policies, I despair. Hamas sees them as non-Muslim and Israel sees them as Palestinians.

                                So it was with interest that I picked up 'Son of Hamas.' The back cover makes great claims, 'The shocking true story of a Hamas insider who rejected his violent destiny - and is now risking everything to expose closely guarded secrets and show the world a way to peace.' And I can say that it lives up to that high billing.

                                ------
                                Mosab Hassan Yousef
                                ------
                                Mosab Hassan Yousef was the son of one of the seven founders of Hamas, a splinter Palestinian organisation that arose after dissatisfaction with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. He gives a wonderful account of his poor upbringing and involvement in early intifadas before he was arrested and faced terrible imprisonment and torture. It was in prison that he became a spy for Shin Bet (the Israeli Secret Service) but, he claims, this was not for personal gain but due to his increasing disillusionment with the violence of the struggle. In this he is well placed to give his view of both sides of the conflict.

                                -------
                                Ron Brackin
                                -------
                                As English is not his first language, Mosab has help in writing his account from the American journalist Ron Brackin. Brackin has spent a lot of time reporting on the Middle East but it is Mosab's voice that comes through in this book. It does not read as if it were ghost written.

                                ------
                                Father - A Peace Loving Terrorist
                                ------
                                One of the most touching parts of this book is how Mosab speaks of his father. He describes him as a man of peace and cannot fathom how he could be a leader in an organisation which organises suicide bombings. Throughout he speaks warmly of the character of his father and longs for the rift, which his actions have caused, to be healed. The book itself is dedicated to 'my loving father and my wounded family.' Mosab was totally rejected by his family when his work for Shin Bet was revealed. It is intriguing to read his blog where, although intending to comment on the latest machinations of the Israel-Palestine conflict, he ends up having to defend himself numerous times from all sides.

                                ------
                                Israel - Torture by Leonard Cohen
                                ------
                                Despite working for the Shin Bet Mosab understands the motivation of the local Palestinians. He has faced at first hand the unjust arrests, followed by the unknown of an indeterminate sentence. He describes in brutal detail the torture methods employed in prison where he was kept awake for days on end. Over and over they played 'First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin' to keep prisoners awake, and deprived them of food for weeks on end.

                                This gives some credence to his decision to inform. It could not be for love of Israel that he turned. In fact he spends much of the book criticising their tactics and explaining how they have exacerbated the problem. Rather it was the indiscriminate attacks of Hamas and the sheer level of bloodshed that made him question their methods. His informing was very deliberate in its content.

                                ------
                                A Third Way - A Way of Peace
                                ------
                                Aged 21 Mosab was stopped on the street by a man who remains anonymous throughout. This man invited him to a bible study and, curious, Mosab attends. He starts reading through the bible as he felt any true Muslim should. And it is here that he is struck by the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In particular he was struck by, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' This was revolutionary teaching for a Palestinian terrorist and struck him very deeply. However this aspect of the book takes a back seat for the second half but is clearly used as an explanation of his changing behaviour.

                                This is no 'trophy' autobiography (p250), ie 'look who we've won from the other side!' Mosab comes across as a very humble, self-effacing man (and has also been described by others). And his focus is not on himself or even justifying his actions but on his love for his Palestinian people and land. Instead there are moments of great poignancy as well as barbarity in this.

                                'We're fighting a war that can't be won with arrests, interrogations and assassinations. Our enemies are ideas, and ideas don't care about incursions and curfews. We can't blow up an idea with a Merkava. .. We're all like rats trapped in a maze. I can't do anything.' (p236)

                                Nor does he present himself as the solution. In many ways this is a very depressing read. There have always been wars and there always will be. And Mosab's assessment of the current conflict is sober. But he is convinced that the way forward is one of peace and forgiveness and not further bloodshed, which is an astonishing testimony in itself from this terrorist.

                                ------
                                Not The End - Summary
                                ------
                                This is an engaging read of 250 pages which gives great insight into the current situation in the Middle East. He includes a helpful list of key players (for those of us unfamiliar with Middle Eastern names), a glossary and a timeline. It is well written, heart-warming and sobering in equal measure. I thoroughly recommend buying or borrowing a copy and reading it.

                                It is published by Authentic media and I picked up my copy for £5.

                                'Truth and forgiveness are the only solutions for the Middle East. The challenge, especially between Israelis and Palestinians, is not to find the solution. The challenge is to be the first courageous enough to embrace it.' (p251)

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                                • More +
                                  09.05.2011 15:06
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                                  A cheap dayglo orange lawnmower

                                  ======
                                  Space, the Final Frontier
                                  ======
                                  The great thing about small gardens is that they are easy to maintain. They take the occasional Saturday to tidy up and can still produce a bit of veg, some nice colour and a small patch of grass to kick a ball around. And with the joys of summer just around the corner (even here!) the joy of being outside, even in a small garden, is great.

                                  We have approximately 4m by 6m of grass and on it is a plum tree (very little fruit last year but seems to be teeming this year) and a slide, oh and there are some chickens in the corner. Actually we've managed to squeeze quite a lot into a small space. But the shed is inevitably small as any space taken up with shed means less space to have rolling around on the grass. And with a small shed and a small patch of grass then only a small mower is needed. Of course the advantage of this is that only a small budget should be needed.

                                  The Flymo MicroLite fitted our needs perfectly. At a little over £30 and the smallest of the Flymo range, it fits in our shed perfectly.

                                  Flymo are probably the best known manufacturers of electric garden equipment and their lurid orange, plastic bodies make them obvious from a mile away. Just because they are the best known doesn't, of course, make them the best but it does mean that as I purchased it I knew that I had bought something reliable. We had a Flymo growing up and it never let us down (and they barely seem to have changed their design).

                                  ======
                                  From a Galaxy Far, Far Away - the design
                                  ======
                                  The design is fairly simple. There is a main body with a plastic cover and two small plastic cutters which rotate around. The motor sits above them and there are no wheels. Instead the downward pressure of the high speed cutters and the lack of friction from the plastic guard means the mower glides across the surface of the grass. This presumes, of course, that you are dealing with a flat surface!

                                  The handle is split in two so that it can fold smaller with plastic tighteners on the join. The top then has a button which has to be depressed while the grip is held to allow the motor to start. This is a helpful safety feature; two hands are needed to begin and so it cannot be done accidentally.

                                  There is no collector for this Flymo, I presume they consider that any patch of grass being mown with this can easily be raked up (although of course needing a rake means more space in a small shed!)

                                  The cover of the motor looks a little like Darth Vader's hat, except in lurid orange.

                                  ======
                                  Sod's Law - the problems
                                  ======
                                  There have been a few pitfalls with this design, however. The main one has been the plastic tighteners half-way down the handle. Plastic is not strong enough to tighten a metal bolt enough to stop the handle folding and in the end they snapped off and I had to find a spanner to tighten them up enough and now it sits unfolded in the shed. And still, due to the cylindrical shape of the handles, they do not tighten very well and I find myself bent double half way through the mow as the thing bends one way then another. There's a bit of an art to getting it right.

                                  Also the way the cutters spin they cannot be seen from above. So I cannot actually see the shape that I am cutting (unlike, for example the old fashioned cylindrical style cutters). And the cutters do not reach right to the edge so when cutting against a wall or some sort of edge the cutters cannot reach very close. Naturally all grass needs edging (yet another thing to fit in the shed), but this leaves quite a gap.

                                  I have had to replace the cutters once in 2 years. I should probably have replaced them sooner as they had diminished in their sharpness but on the whole I was surprised at how well they manage. Changing them was very simple too, just popping the old one out and the new one in. The central holder has two positions, long and short cut; you simply take off the cutter holder and turn it upside down.

                                  The flex is quite long, I think approximately 10m, but I still need an extension cable (yet another...yes, you guessed it!) to cover the whole area. It does my patch quite quickly, however. It tends to take me 10minutes from getting it out to putting it back again. The grass does get stuck to the roof of the cover and needs regular cleaning off, but then its always going to get stuck somewhere and all mowers need regular maintenance. In fact, this mower needs very little general maintenance and is very user friendly in that respect.

                                  ======
                                  Boldly going where most men have gone before - summary
                                  ======
                                  I would recommend the MicroLite as it is easy and effective, however there are issues with the design that can render it a little frustrating. So if you have a small garden and shed and you don't require something that takes too much maintenance, then it is worth looking at the MicroLite, but do consider the two part handle design when you buy.

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