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I have been managing my personal share portfolio online with Barclays Stockblokers for nearly three years now. They offer a range of accounts tailored to suit different types of investor.
I opened a "MarketMaster" account, which is the simplest one aimed at people who trade infrequently. Your portfolio can include shares, funds, covered warrants, bonds and investment notes (derivative products that are structured to look like a bond and are based on a specified underlying security, such as the FTSE-100 index, or a basket of securities). The commission structure is simple: £12 per transaction for the first ten transactions in any quarter, then £7.50 per transation. The commission sounds quite high, but, as it is a fixed amount, the larger your transaction is the smaller it is as a percentage. I consider £1000 to be the minimum value of a transaction, for which £12 represents a 1.2% charge. If you want to deal by phone the commission is more expensive, starting at £17.50 per transaction. There is also a £9 administration charge per quarter.
The other trading accounts include the "Frequent Trader Club", which is aimed at people who trade more frequently or have larger transactions. This appears to be very similar to the MarketMaster account, but, they also send you monthly share-dealing newsletters via e-mail.
There are also accounts aimed at companies and investment clubs, and there are special accounts for dealing in spread bets, CFDs (Contracts For Difference) and self-select ISAs.
It is worth noting that the share accounts are "nominee" accounts. That is, you don't own the shares, but Barclays owns them on your behalf. If you just want to invest this distinction is academic, as all cash flows are identical to the case where you do own the shares. However, some companies offer shareholders special privileges, and you might be wanting to own a share for the privilege it confers. In some cases, Barclays will pass the privilege on to you if you request it, but it is not automatic and it is not true in all cases. When you open your account they send you a list of all companies where they can pass the privilege on to you.
The web site itself is easy and intuitive to use. A home page lists all the accounts you have; the page for a given account lists the securities in your portfolio with the purchace cost, current value and change shown for each (as well as for the portfolio as a whole). You can also get histories of your deals and of the account cash flows.
There is a "research" section that gives a lot of information about the whole market, sectors and individual shares: news, analyst recomendations, details of todays dealing, analytical charts and so on. Of particular use are the Stock Screening Tools. These allow you to filter down the whole universe of stocks to a managable handful using a wide range of criteria. Whether you want to screen based on balance sheet fundamentals, recent price performance or analyst estimates of next years yield, it is all in there.
When you want to deal shares, the process is very simple. Most simply, you enter which share, buy/sell and the quantity. You are then given a quote that is valid for 15 seconds, which is enough time for you to check over the details while a big red counter counts down the seconds. Simply hit the button to carry out the deal or let the timer expire. That is a "quote and deal" transaction type; for the more adventurous there are other transaction types, e.g. a "limit order" allows you to specify a price you want to deal at. The deal will only go ahead if the specified price is reached.
Finally, it is easy to transfer cash both in and out of your account. Put it in via a credit/debit card transaction; withdraw it as an electronic transfer to a bank account that you designated when you opened your trading account.
The Canon EOS 5D is bridges the gap between consumer and professional DSLR cameras. Its price reflects this, retailing at around 1500GBP for the body. As a kit, it is offered with the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4.0L IS USM lens for around 2000GBP. (It is probably worth declairing at this point that I am on the consumer side of the fence, and so this review will be most useful for consumers, not professionals.)
The headline feature of the 5D is the 'full frame' digital sensor. Most digital cameras have a sensor that is smaller in area than a 35mm negative. This leads to a focal length multiplication factor that is greater than one. For example, the Canon EOS 30D has a 22.5x15.0mm sensor giving a 1.6x focal length factor. The EOS 5D full frame sensor is the same size as a 35mm negative at 35.8x23.9mm. This gives a 1.0x focal length factor. Of course, the larger sensor size provides room for more pixels, however, there is a real optical advantage to a larger sensor. A larger sensor gives a greater depth of field. If you want to quantify what the difference is, visit http://www.lensplay.com where you can find a depth-of-field calculator.
Now, back the the EOS 5D itself. On contact with it, the first impression is that it is large and heavy. There is no doubting that. Using my kitchen scales, the body and lens weigh in at a hefty 1.65kg (including the battery pack). Be prepared for it. However, as soon as your hands slide into place -- right hand on the camera grip and left hand on the lens zoom ring -- the feeling is so natural that the weight becomes irrelivant. The ergonomics of the camera are so close to perfect that it becomes a wieldy and precise camera. I've used it to shoot continuously at three frames per second while tracking my daughter running around irratically. I found it a much better tool for this than any other camera I have used.
The camera has a very large array of modes and features to allow you to get your pictures right (I will not list them here). However, do not overlook its excellent 'fully automatic' mode, which makes it an extraordinarily accomplished point-and-click camera. Anyone buying the EOS 5D will, no doubt, be intending to use those extra modes and features -- and here it gets really impressive. The controls are unbelievably easy and intuitive to use. The majority of settings that effect shooting can be altered using fingertip controls without moving your hands. Press a button, twist a wheel: the ISO is changed. Press a button, twist a wheel: the white balance is changed. And so it goes on.
The one drawback for the consumer user is that there is no integral 'pop-up' flash. This means that the further expense of a flashgun is required for indoor shooting -- unless you want to keep telling your granny to sit still. It also means the further weight of a flashgun ontop of an already hefty camera. Again, when taking photos the weight remains irrelevant, but, when hanging it around your neck, you now have 2kg of dead weight. Enough to give a child a very nasty clout on the head if you bend towards them.
Here, I really wanted to concentrate on the 'user experience' of taking photos. I do not consider myself qualified to comment fully on the end results. So, in terms of the quality of photographs you can take, all I will say here is that with the EOS 5D you can take very good photos with relatively little effort (or no effort with the fully automatic mode). Put in a bit of effort and you will contually astound yourself with the results -- or even compete with the professionals.
One final note: the lens assumed here is the EF 24-105mm f/4.0L IS USM. For this camera, this is a good choice if you are starting with only a single lens as it ranges from slightly wide to mid telephoto. However, there is, of course, a whole range of Canon and compatible lenses to consider. From the Canon range it would be best to stick to the professional quality 'L' series lenses. Amongst them, the f/1.2 lenses are considered the bees-knees for portrait photography.
I was recently invited to a "ride and drive" event at my local Jaguar dealer, where I had the opportunity to drive many models from the current range. Naturally, I chose to drive the XJR, XKR and S-Type R. Of these, the S-Type R stood out as being the superlative machine. Yes, the XJR had ultimate luxury; and yes, the XKR cornered the market in looks and desirability. But for sheer talent on the road the S-Type R was a Yorkshire mile ahead of the others. The smooth, supercharged engine sounds great and has tremendous reserves of torque. Excellent grip ensures it corners fantastically well, and the stopping power of the breaks is far beyond anything else I've experienced. What would I compare it to? Well, a while ago I test drove a Mitsubishi Evo VI Tommi Makinen special edition. In feel, the S-Type R is the Evo's elder brother. While the Evo has the unfettered, tear-away wrecklessness of youth; the S-Type R has the same temperament, just slightly softened with maturity and a desire for luxury; and is by far the better machine for this. At the price Jaguar offer this machine, it is an unparalleled bargain! Hear's my advice: sell your Granny; buy a Jaguar S-Type R.