Tuesday 22 December 2009

Panasonic Viera TX-P37X10B 37" Plasma TV

I've been very sceptical about flat screen TVs.

Whilst I've wholeheartedly embraced flat screen computer monitors, I've never yet seen a flat screen TV that I think compares (in SD viewing) with a traditional CRT TV.

However, our 28" JVC widescreen was obviously coming to the end of its useful life and a business trip to the US persuaded me of the virtues of HD TVs (with the right quality signal), so I started looking around.

I returned a few times to the Panasonic TX-P37X10B, because of the high refresh rate and plasma virtures, but it wasn't until I saw one alongside LCD TVs in a local Panasonic shop that I was sold.

One TV in the shop stood out as sharper, clearer and more realistic in colours and it was the only Plasma TV in the shop.

I don't have HD (I don't, and probably won't for some while, have a Blu-ray player or an HD TV receiver), so SD quality (especially for sports like Motor Racing and Skiing) was very important to me.

We get most of our TV via Virgin Media cable and the picture quality, viewed from across the room, is very good. Up close it's not as a good as the CRT, but it's still much better than any LCD flat screen I've seen.

DVDs look pretty good too and watching Blade Runner on the BBC recently highlighted the richness of the picture - I watched half on my Sharp LCD TV and half on the Panasonic and the richness and contrast of the Panasonic was so much better than the Sharp as to be beyond compare really.

There is no ghosting on sports broadcasts (I watched a repeat of the Goodwood Revival coverage I had seen previously on my JVC TV and it looked amazing!) and general programmes and films look equally good.

The TV itself is pretty good looking too, with a nice gloss black surround (I almost got the slightly cheaper matt black one, but I glad I didn't) and the sound's ok (I think sound wise the JVC was better).

The feature that lets you view images from a SD card is rather good and photos look excellent - A neat way to show your friends and family your latest photos.

There are plenty of options for connecting DVD/Bluray/AV receivers and games consoles (even PCs) to the TV, but so far I've just used the SCART connections.

Amazon list the inputs as :

CI (Common Interface) yes
VIERA Image Viewer yes (JPEG playback)
HDMI Input 3 (1 side, 2 rear) [ver. 1.3 with x.v.Colour]
Composite Video Input AV3: RCA phono type x 1 (side)
S-Video Input AV3: Mini DIN 4-pin (side)
Audio Input (for Video) AV3: RCA phono type connectors (L, R) (1 set, side)
Component Video Input RCA phono type x 3 [Y, PB, PR] (rear)
PC Input Mini D-sub 15-pin x 1 (rear)
Audio Input (for HDMI, PC, Component) RCA phono type connectors (L, R) x 2 sets (rear x 1 set, side x 1 set)
21-Pin Input/Output AV1: AV In/Out, RGB In, Q-Link (rear) / AV2: AV In/Out, S-Video In, RGB In,
Q-Link (rear)

So, is there any reason I wouldn't wholeheartedly recommend this TV?

Well, partly because of the sound quality, partly because I can't really comment on the HD quality and partly because I still don't believe that flat screens are a match for the old CRT TVs for SD viewing.

I purchased my TV from Richer Sounds (the ever helpful Guildford branch), who matched the best online price and provide a 5 year guarantee on all their items for 10% of the price (much cheaper than anyone else!).

Overall, I'm very pleased with this TV and don't think, for SD viewing anyway, that I could've got a better quality picture in a flat screen TV.

Friday 18 December 2009


Of absolutely no interest to anyone really, but we got snow in the south of England today - A rare occurrence.

I went to Belgium yesterday, supposedly for a meeting in Antwerp, but got no further than the Autoroute between Brussels and Antwerp as we were halted by snow (A RWD BMW 1 series and snow are not a great mix, but my RX8 is no better, so is sitting on the drive today!).

Today, I awoke to this:

Lovely! :)

Friday 4 December 2009

Call of Duty : Modern Warfare 2 (PC)

I bought Call of Duty 4 : Modern Warfare a couple of years ago and was, frankly, blown away by the outstanding graphics (even on a fairly low end PC), exciting and involving narrative and intense gameplay.

I've been through the game a few times, although my few forays online have resulted in intense frustration as I was repeated killed without even having a clue where the opposition was.

I was, therefore, looking forward to Modern Warfare 2. The trailers looked good (more of the same, but MORE somehow), but the initial release price put me off (COD4 still sells for more than I paid for it - Around £15) and I imagined it would be some months before I got hold of a copy.

A chance offer of a big discount (£25 off!) changed that and I soon had COD : MW2 on my PC and was ready to go.

The PC version of the game installs Steam which forces regular updates and downloads - I could do without this personally. Some say this also means that you cannot resell the game if you tire of it, a big negative in my view (especially at the high initial purchase price) if true.

Although very much the same kind of experience there are actually a number of things I don't enjoy as much about MW2 as I did MW.

First off the colours sometimes seems a bit too vibrant on my PC (see the photo in the boat for a good example).

The washed out colourations of COD4 were different and lent the game a different feeling, but the new games is too bright for my eyes at times. This might be an issue with my oldish graphics card, but it was a negative (albeit a small one).

On the positive side, the graphics are still grand, detailed and wonderful (more on that later, though) and the performance is still outstanding even on my AMD2 PC - this is no gaming Monster PC - except on the ultimate detail settings (and you don't NEED that to enjoy the richness of the games graphics, although it does reward you if you have a high end PC and graphics card).

Secondly the game seems more manic than COD4. There's still a narrative of sorts, but it feels less convincing and coherent and the action is unrelently 'press-on', which means all too often that you can't take in the rich and amazing vistas on offer - You are rarely rewarded (except with a lot of blood spatter) for stepping back and considering the situation and the lean option has been removed, which means cover is strictly on or off and often stepping out from cover will get you killed instantly.

The game also seems rather easy compared to the original. On the Regular setting I often found levels where I really struggled in the original game (I'm not a gaming hotshot!), but I found no such challenges in MW2. Some list the Favella level and the Burger Bar level as challenging, but aside from a few brief delays (especially in the Favella) I encountered little to stop my progress through the levels and the time it takes to play through all the levels in the game seems much less than to play COD4:MW. It took me around 10 hours to complete the game (over a couple of weeks, but I've heard people claim to complete it in 6 hours).

Some of the levels seem to be almost lifted directly from TV programmes or films (Generation Kill - see image below - or Red Dawn viewers will spot the obvious influences), whereas the original game seemed, on the whole, more, well, original...

The controversial "Terrorist training" level is a bit distasteful, but you don't have to shoot civilians (I didn't, but most people I know did!) to get through to the point where the security forces engage you. That said, if shooting people in a computer game is really going to upset you, you're unlikely to buy MW2 and it does come with a prominent 18 rating (in the UK at least) and you can choose to simply skip the whole level at any point during or before it.

Finally, the end of the game is a little disappointing - the speed boat chase is out of character (a bit like a rubbish first person driving game on a console) and the final scenes involve little or no skill or control and the denoument is really just a, frankly, silly rehash of the original game's ending.

That said, the end does leave the narrative suitably open-ended, if a little obviously erring towards a "Soldier of Fortune" kind of plotline.

Overall, Call Of Duty : Modern Warfare 2 is more of the same, but somehow less...

If you have COD4:MW then you'll probably enjoy MW2, but if you only buy one of the COD : MW games make it the original and save yourself a few quid.

Handy for Bracknell

I was recently sent details of this flat, 'local' to Bracknell.

Interesting to see that it's a few miles outside the town centre...

Thursday 5 November 2009

XMI Xmini II Travel Speaker

I was watching Channel 5's "The Gadget Show" one evening back in the summer and they ran a Top 5 on travel speakers for MP3 players.

Some of the units didn't really fit the description 'Travel Speakers' for me, being too large to slip in a pocket or hand luggage, but a couple (the winning Altec Lansing Orbit and the XMI Xmini) caught my eye as I sometimes travel on business (and once in a blue moon for pleasure) and liked the idea of listening to music in my hotel room, without needing to wear earphones.

Although the Orbit won, I discounted it for three reasons. Firstly it was a little larger than the Xmini, secondly it needed batteries and thirdly it was about twice the price of the Xmini.

I looked around and found that the Xmini II had been launched to replace the reviewed unit and bought one from AdvancedMP3players.com for £20 (Amazon are selling them for £14 as I write this).

It arrived while I was working in France, but, as luck would have it, my family came over to spend a weekend, so I took delivery whilst on a business trip. The perfect testing scenario.

The packaging was quite bulky, but the Xmini II is just an 60mm ball, whilst closed down. The finish is mainly matt black plastic, but there's a splash of red which is the speaker cone.

The speaker comes in a small carry pouch which won't protect it against impact, but does protect it from scratches in your pocket or bag.

To use it, you twist the unit's top and bottom and it pops open to reveal a concertina section which makes the speaker about 80mm high.

The, rather short, audio lead is built into the Xmini II's base, so you don't need to carry a cable and the speaker. It simply plugs into the earphone socket on an MP3 player.

There's a power switch which illuminates a small blue light (quite a bright one, so you're unlikely to forget to turn it off at night if it's in the room you sleep in!) and a dial to turn to adjust the volume(you just see the edge, so push one way to increase the volume and the other to decrease).

Obviously the Xmini II doesn't work by magic. Inside there's a rechargeable battery (they claim 12 hours continuous use which seems completely believeable), which is charged with any mini-USB charger (thoughtful as everyone seems to have something with such a charger).

So, it's a neat gadget and looks good, but can a tiny ball deliver anything but a thin, tinny sound?

Happily yes!

Clearly it can't compete with decent speakers on a hi-fi unit, but it's surprisingly clear, deep and rich (not always three elements that even big speakers balance correctly) for the tiny size and I've used it many times, often for hours on end, without finding the sound disappointing or tiresome.

My very initial feeling was that the sound was a little tinny and quiet, but after some adjustment of the volume of the speaker and MP3 player (and the Cowon iAudio 7 has a very good graphic equaliser too) I was able to get a great sound that didn't sound at all thin in even large hotel rooms.

I suspect, too, that the units need a few minutes playing time to free up properly after shipping.

A neat feature, which I've yet to try (even though I bought my daughter one as well - she uses it at home mainly) is that the Xmini IIs can be 'buddied' together to provide more sound as there is an output socket on each unit. This won't give true stereo, but is said to greatly increase the volume and power.

For £15 or so, the Xmini II is a brilliant little gadget that brightens up those dull evenings in business hotels.

One of my best 'gadget' buys ever!

Thursday 22 October 2009

Bob Dylan at the O2, London - April 2009

Back in April, I got offered a ticket to see Bob Dylan at the O2 in London (formerly the Millenium Dome)

I was interested to see the Dome and Bob Dylan.

Getting there was a bit of a pain as the Jubilee Line was shut, but I managed it and settled into my seat.

I wasn't that far from the stage, in the first raised row directly facing the stage, but it was pretty hard to make out details of people on the stage and, truth be known, I couldn't swear it WAS Bob Dylan on the stage, so God only knows how little those at the back of my section of seating or high up in 'the Gods' could see.

Bob's band looked very Blue Grass crossed with ZZ Top, but they seemed a competent bunch. Mr Dylan (Let's assume it was him) came on wearing a big white hat, but didn't acknowledge the crowd then or at any time during the concert. OK, maybe "Hello...errr....London!" is a bit a cliche, but I can't help thinking this distance contributed to my feeling about the whole evening.

The first song was, just about, recognisable as Maggie's Farm, but from the outset it felt like he wasn't really taking it seriously and was singing in a rather mannered way (a bit like a high pitched, nasal drunken slur) for his own amusement.

He continued on through the set, which a scan on the internet suggests was as below, in the same way.

Maggie's Farm
The Times They Are A-Changin'
Things Have Changed
Chimes of Freedom
Rollin' And Tumblin'
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
'Til I Fell In Love With You
Workingman's Blues #2
Highway 61 Revisited
Ballad Of Hollis Brown
Honest With Me
When the Deal Goes Down
Thunder On The Mountain
Like A Rolling Stone

All Along The Watchtower
Spirit On The Water
Blowin' In The Wind

One or two were quite good (Things have changed stuck in my mind as good as did Highway 61 revisited), but often the songs were barely recognisable (All Along the Watchtower is a favourite song of mine, but it was barely recognisable and Like a Rollin' Stone almost passed without me realising!) and the performance was either terrible or terribly mannered.

I've read a couple of reviews in the press about this event, one said pretty much what I have and the other said we were honoured to be in the presence of a God like genius.

Not being a Dylan fan, I felt a bit cheated (although I didn't really begrudge the face value I paid for the ticket) as if he'd had all the fun at our expense.

Some big screens and some acknowledgement of our presence would have made it feel that Bob wasn't just going through the motions up on stage, without really wanting to perform for the audience (which I suspect might have been exactly the case).

I certainly won't go and see Bob in concert again, but I can say I did.

Franz Ferdinand - Bournemouth 21st October 2009

Franz Ferdinand - are a Scottish indie band, four guys, three guitars and a drummer (with a few synths thrown in).

I'd liked their stuff since their first hit, "Take Me Out" and have bought their 3 albums, but I wouldn't describe myself as a die-hard fan.

I can't recall exactly how I discovered they were playing live at the Bournemouth Opera House (now re-re-renamed the O2 Academy), but I do remember being slightly shocked that such a 'big' group were playing the small, intimate venue and I decided it was too good a chance to miss.

My teenage daughter tagged along and we got there just in time to be soaked by a downpour as we queued to get in. We could've dodge the queue and stayed dry if I'd had my PAYG O2 mobile with me! Worth knowing if you have an O2 phone...

Whilst I don't think of myself as 'Old' just yet, I'm old enough that the Academy (as it was then) was my Saturday night stomping ground 25 years ago, but although it'd had a lick of paint and some trendy new lighting, the venue is little changed (I guess it's protected, being a Victorian music hall).

At 8PM the support act came on. MusicGoMusic are an LA group, fronted by a frighteningly thin (but quite charismatic) girl. Over to the left were two guitarists (one looking like a long-haired Garth Marenghi and the other like Gareth from 'The Office'!), a drummer at the back and to the right a bequiffed and besuited keyboardist.

To be honest, the sound balance wasn't great for MGM, with the singer's voice being drowned by the instruments, but what I could hear suggested they're worth a listen when they release their first material. Their overall sound was good for a crowd here to listen to Franz Ferdinand and they were, on the whole, well received.

After the usual roadie shenanigans, Franz Ferdinand came on around 9:15.

Straight into "No you Girls", they wasted no time producing a crowd pleasing set, ploughing through most of their hits and some lesser known tracks from all 3 albums.

No You Girls
Do You Want To
The Dark Of The Matinée
Tell Her Tonight
Can't Stop Feeling
Send Him Away
This Fire
Turn It On
Take Me Out

The sound was excellent for Franz Ferdinand, with Alex's distinctive voice clear over the instruments (although they clearly see themselves as musicians as their guitar breaks showed and I couldn't quibble).

Whilst their image in videos is sometimes a little distracted and bored, their live performance is anything but, it was raw, exciting and energetic.

After about 45 minutes they went off and we all awaited the usual 2 or 3 song encore.

Well, after 5 songs I stopped counting and by the time the drummer left the stage I couldn't take any more - The encore was as long as the main set!

Walk Away
Live Alone
Van Tango
Darts Of Pleasure
What She Came For
Lucid Dreams

I was convinced they were going to leave the stage after "What She Came For", because there was no question that "We got what we came for! No Doubt!".

In the end, they departed the stage one at a time after an interesting and extended version of Lucid Dreams.

I've seen a few bands over the years, but I can't honestly say I've seen a band that produced a more energetic, intimate or enjoyable set and the extended encore made me (and most of the rest of the audience I'd guess, by the happy faces as we filed out) feel as if we'd been privy to a rare treat!

If they're always this good, you owe it to yourself to go and see them!

To coin a phrase "You Could Have It So Much Better" with Franz Ferdinand

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Gran Turismo for PSP

Gran Turismo for the PSP has been promised since the handheld console was launched.

Indeed it's been slated for release on more than one occasion, only to fail to materialise, so it was with a little surprise that I opened my parcel from Play.com and realised I FINALLY held it in my hand.

First off, let me say that I've only very briefly played GT3 on a PS2 before, so I'm not a series fan. I don't have a clue what 'Career Mode' is and I suspect I wouldn't much like it to be honest (if it forces you to plough through level after level to reach the track and car you want to race).

So, what's GT for the PSP actually like?

After upgrading my PSP to version 5.5 firmware (which it insisted on doing and delivers a PS Network link from the main menu), the intro movie is a delight. The graphics are film quality and atmospheric and I wanted to play the game as soon as I'd watched them!

First car I was offered was, wait for it, a Renault Megane... mmmm....

The nice thing is that I was able to pick a wide variety of tracks and I plumped for one of my all time favourites, Laguna Seca in California.

Something GT games are famed for is the realistic handling of their cars and, sure enough, the Megane understeers wide if you fail to brake sufficiently into the corners.

Laguna Seca looks to be very accurately reproduced too (I've not driven the circuit, but I've walked around it and watched many in-car laps).

After easily beating the competition, I purchased a Mazda (I thought it was an RX8 - my daily drive - but it turned out to be a 7) and took on the Grune-Holle of the Nordschleife. The circuit is challenging and so, for me, are the controls. breaking isn't a natural action, switching over to the SQUARE button from the X on the right controller - perhaps being left handed exacerbates this - and the steering with the joystick controller is over sensitive, leading to a snaking action which leads to spins at speed on the Nurburgring's fastest sections. All that said, though, I'm sure hardcore console fans won't have problems with this.

Mentioning speed brings me to another positive of the game, the sensation of speed is great - I felt genuinely tense as the car started to snake and i lost control. I was only doing 140 mph or so, but it felt like 140 or more, unlike the rather sterile experience of some computer games.

There's certainly no slow frame refreshing here and the rendering of the woods surrounding the circuit is detailed enough to aid the sense of speed - I was impressed by this as some reviews had suggested that the background detail was poor to aid performance - So far, I've seen no examples of this.

I have seen the odd black rectangle passing by on the Nordschleife, but generally the detail is complete and high.

After a few plays I 'invested' in a Nissan GTR and the performance is notably higher than the RX7 (I had a high speed tank slappper on the long straight near the end of the circuit and I could feel myself getting tense!).

It was also noticable that the competition is tougher to beat as you edge up the classes (I'm up to class B on the ring and beating the competition by a second or two most races, although not without the odd off track excursion on most laps)

What's not so good?

Well, although there are lots of cars and it's clear what they're supposed to be, I found their graphical detail in game to be a little crude, although it's better on replay. It's certainly no match for GTR2 on a PC, for example.

Getting new cars depends on you 'buying' them from the 'dealers of the day' after winning money from race placing (you get money wherever you finish out of the 4 cars which feature in each race). Even if you have $1m, you can't just buy a Group C racer, until it's available from the dealership, which requires you dropping back to the menu, which starts a new 'day'.

Only having 4 cars on track at once doesn't bother me, nor does the lack of damage at this stage, but I can see how the latter might appeal when I'm more experienced with the game and it would've been nice to have it as a switchable feature.

What GT on the PSP is really good for is picking up and banging in a quick race on your favourite track(s) in your favourite car.

My use of the PSP is intermittent and, often, short, so the game works well in this mode, although hard-core GT gamers seem to have expected GT4 (or even 5!) on the PSP, which doesn't seem to be a practical solution (although attempts to deliver this might well explain the prolonged gestation period of the game).

I got GT PSP for just £18 on release and, for that price, it seems a great addition to PSP gaming.

Fire up the GTR, I'm off to the 'Ring again!

Friday 2 October 2009

Recent Music Purchases - Jack Penate and Friendly Fires

I recently bought a few new CDs.

Jack Penate - Matinee and Everything is New - I first came across Jack Penate whilst waiting for Franz Ferdinand to appear on the BBC's Glastonbury coverage - He was playing 'the John Peel Tent' and I found his live set lively and highly enjoyable with hints of ska and (as my daughter says) 'a Male Kate Nash'. Matinee is quite the latter, whilst Everything is new, his second album has more elements of the Ska feel and feels an altogether more polished and 'grown up' album. I'd recommend both, but if you buy only one, I'd pick Everything is New.

Friendly Fires - Friendly Fires - Stumbled across these guys on WE7.com (where you can listen to whole albums online - surely someone's going to stomp on this soon?). I was especially taken with 'In the Hospital', which sounds like a Talking Heads track to me. It's a bit of a mixed bag, in my opinion, with some great tracks (Lovesick, Hospital, Paris and Skeleton Boy) and some that don't work so well (Jump in the Pool, for example), but on balance, it's more good than not so and I don't often skip any of the tracks. Intelligent dance music (not the incessant bass and drum of the likes of Basshunter), Friendly Fires will be a band I'll watch and listen to with interest.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

Trick Question?

Being a bit of a car enthusiast I thought I'd do Virgin Media's Car Badge Quiz at

I was doing alright until I got to the tricky question 7 and I somehow got the wrong answer - If I'd known it was a lottery I might have tried randomly answering all the questions!

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Banger & Stock Car Racing, Aldershot

I live about 5 minutes drive from the Aldershot Spedeworth track, but despite being a life long motor racing fan, I'd never been stock or banger racing.

Last weekend, I put that right, mainly at my Son's instigation as he's always been very disappointed at the lack of crashes in the major series races we've been to see.

Aldershot is a very new circuit and I was quite surprised at the quality and safety features of the track. There's a stand (it's all metal, though, so I'd imagine it's scary in the wet!) and you can walk around pretty much all of the tiny oval.

To someone used to watching a circuits like Silverstone and Thruxton, the Aldershot oval looks too small for anything to be able to pass on, but as the Mini Stocks (original style Minis with square tubing welded around their perimeter), it became clear that it's not.

The Junior Ministock drivers were all kids (early teenagers, I guess), but some of them certainly knew how to drive. The cars were scattered around the track in groups with a couple on one side of the track and the bulk in a big group on the other (I believe drivers are graded and their roofs painted to indicate the grading - I guess this was why they were aranged in this way). The green flag dropped and the cars were off. Mini Stocks aren't out and out 'full contact' racers, but they're obviously allowed to nudge.

One particular driver was able to gently nudge the cars in front of him off line into the bends and dive up the inside. He did this time and time again and rose from the back of the big pack to 2nd place on the line (He actually did the same and won the other two races for these cars).

Next up were Junior Rods - These were small hatchback racers on narrow road tyres and clearly contact in these races was frowned upon. The racing was close, but there was less passing than in the Minis. Again the drivers were teenagers.

Next up was, to me, the highlight of the day. Slick shod Rods. These were out and out racers which looked like road cars, but clearly were heavily modified.

Once again the cars were arranged around the track. A couple of very fast cars, a Vauxhall Tigra and Toyota Corolla, tore through from the back to end up battling for victory over the last couple of laps in all 3 races for the class.

A Ford Mondeo driver put up a stout defence in each race, but eventually fell prey to the smaller cars putting less strain on their slick tyres. Contact was pretty rare (and not allowed), but there was plenty of passing as the faster cars, cut and thrust up the inside or around the outside of the rest of the field.

Final class of the day were bangers - These were Ryan's favourites and certainly delivered crowd pleasing action. For 3 laps the cars had to race, but after that they were allowed punt it each other with impunity and did so with relish.

Most of the cars didn't look like they were driveable in the first race and a number fell out after each event. The final ended in a demolition derby and only one car (A Rover 200!) was still driveable at the end, with most of the others missing wheels and dramatically truncated through contact with each other and the concrete track walls.

The event (held in bright warm September sunshine) was good fun (Although at £12 for 12 races it wasn't a cheap 3 hours racing) and I was very impressed by the slick shod racers and some of the driving skills on show (even amongst the young drivers).
Ryan loved the bangers and the demolition derby was a real crowd pleaser (Even I have to admit I found it 'fun' as a someone who thinks of himself as a motorsport fan).

We'll go again when racing resumes next year, I'm sure.

Friday 25 September 2009

Samsung NC10 Netbook

Some years ago I gave up a permanent job and started doing some freelance consulting.

Being in IT and moving around I needed a laptop, but I'd spent a number of years lugging heavy laptops around and fancied something compact and light.

I liked Sony's tiny notebook PCs, but I didn't like the prices they came with and I settled, back then, on a used Dell C400 - A laptop with a 12" (Square) screen, no CD Rom or floppy disk, which weighs just 1.7Kg without its power supply.

It was good, except for two problems - Firstly the battery life was abysmal (an hour if I was lucky even with a brand new battery) and secondly it wasn't really that quick.

Back in full time employment, the C400 was passed onto my daughter (I like them so much I bought another for my son) and I had a heavy HP laptop to lug around again.

However, when ASUS released their first EEPCs and other Netbooks started to appear I got interested.

Sometimes I don't need a big laptop, I just want something that I can write or review documents on, surf the web or edit and review photos.

I knew what I wanted and it was :

1) Small, lightweight notebook.
2) Windows XP OS - for full compatibility with my home and work machines
3) Good battery life - 3 hours +
4) Decent resolution screen
5) Ability to surf the net remotely.
6) Able to run a couple of applications (eg Outlook, Word, Excel, Paint.net) at a time.
7) Fast start up (from standby, at least).

The Netbook (at around a kilo) seemed a great idea, but playing with the 7 and 9 inch models showed the keyboards were hard to use, but that changed as 10" screen models appeared and after some consideration I decided to purchase a Samsung NC10.

The NC10 (now supplanted by the similar N110) features a 10.1" screen, with 1024x600 pixel resolution and the ubiquitous Intel Atom processor.

There's a 120GB hard disk built in, but no CD Rom (as with most Netbooks - although it will boot off of a USB device).

By default it comes with just 1GB of RAM, but for £20 I purchased a 2GB RAM module and replaced it (there's only room for one module) almost as soon as it arrived (a very easy task as there's a door under the netbook with direct access to the RAM).

Some reviews complain about the small touchpad, but I never really found it that much of a problem. I may be unusual in that I actually find touchpads quite easy to use and I got on with the NC10's with no problem.

The keyboard is generally very good. The size is close enough to a full sized to be at ease instantly and the feel and weight of the keys is high quality. The only downside here is the short right shift key on the UK market version, which still leads me to starting sentences with the \ character. NC10s in other markets have a wide right shift key, like most other keyboards.

The NC10 was one of the first Netbooks to run Windows XP rather than a Linux of some form. Whilst I'm not a Microsoft fanboy, the 100% compatibility with my other PCs was something I wasn't prepared to compromise on.

The NC10 (especially compared to others when I bought it) is a handsome Netbook - It didn't look as 'built down to a price' as many of its competitors, with a 'piano black' finish and a silver edge that lent it the look of a quality bound notebook from a distance.

Little features like the blue LEDs (including the neat power switch built into the right side screen hinge) added to the feel of quality build.

There's a semi-decent quality webcam built into the top edge of the screen, but I've never used it myself. There's also a built in mic (again, I've not used it) and the ability to plug in an external mic, which I have done a few times and records reasonably decent voice recordings, ideal for recording meetings.

I installed Office 2007 and it runs Excel, Word and Powerpoint quite happily. I've also run the Windows 7 Beta on it and seen good performance.

The screen is exceptionally bright and clear (this was the deciding feature over another netbook when I bought) and this makes running photo software relatively pleasurable too, although the small screen size prevents some software installing and it's not a match for the 19" widescreen LCD on my home PC. It is plenty good enough for initial sorting, etc on a trip, though, which is exactly what I wanted.

The wi-fi works very well, with performance around my house (on the 20MB Virgin Media Broadband) on web based speed testers a match for my wired in desktops. I've used it all over the place (in Europe and America too) with similarly good performance.

There are 3 USB Ports and a VGA Output, so you could use this as a primary PC if you were feeling so inclined, but that's not really the point of netbooks.

There are built in speakers, but they're not really that good except for bleeping an alert - Even playing back Radio 4's "New Quiz" isn't very enjoyable, let alone music, but with earphones plugged in, the sound quality output from the NC10 is pretty decent.

The battery life is excellent for a laptop of any sort. I've seen 6 hours+ of web browsing on a single charge - and the power supply is relatively lightweight, so not a great problem to take on trips with you. Booting from totally off to Outlook running takes under 2 minutes even with a number of startup apps (Anti-Virus, etc) loaded and it's up and running in under 20 seconds from Standby.

Bad points? Well, I've never got mine to play DVD rips at a decent speed. I found MPEG4 conversions for my PSP run well and look acceptable at the limited resolution the screen delivers, though.

That short right shift key still bugs me repeatedly and that's it.

Generally, the NC10 is a lovely netbook. It performs well enough (although inevitably not a match for a full spec desktop or laptop), is very light and compact, has a great screen and lasts hours on a single battery charge.

I would buy another in an instant if I needed to.

Link to Samsung UK Product Page

Samsung Netbook User Forum

SaveonSamsung.com - Who I bought my NC10 from.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Cowon iAudio 7 MP3 Player

I resisted the MP3 player fashion for a long, long time, but then I bought my daughter one and decided it was actually pretty cool and that I should get one too.

I originally got myself a Sandisk MP3 player for under £20. It was, frankly, great. It only had a GB of memory, but that was plenty for me and it used a single standard AAA battery, which I could buy more or less anywhere in the world, which I thought was a great idea. I got some Phillips earphones as a gift and I was all set.

I listened on the train,
I listened on planes,
I listened in hotels when away on business
and I even listened as I skiied.
It was great.

(Is there a song lyric in their somewhere?)

But then I stupidly left the damn thing on an airplane on the way to the US for a skiing holiday and that was it...

For some reason the same unit had become insanely expensive (some people wanted £90 for it!), so I settled on a Sony which seemed fine until, 3 months later, it stopped playing and completely refused to restart, so it went back to Amazon and I got a refund.

This time I decided to think long and hard about what I wanted.

The herd said iPod, but I was put off by the need to use Apple's software, reports of unreliability and relatively short battery life and the cost (The Shuffle was cheap enough, but I like to see what I am about to play, so they lack of a screen killed it).

My requirements were:

1. Primarily a MP3 player - Just for music, but with the ability to select tracks from a menu.
2. Small - I wanted it to slip in my pocket without trouble.
3. 2-4 GB - Didn't need tons of memory and certainly didn't want a disk drive model.
4. True 'drag and drop' with Windows - No fiddly software to transfer tracks on and off it.
5. Good quality sound - I'm no audiophile, but I didn't want a tinny piece of junk or a muddy bass dominated sound.
6. As affordable as possible - Less than a similar spec iPod if possible.

I looked at the iRiver Clix, but decided I didn't need a big screen and I didn't like the format much.

I considered things like the Sansa Clip and Creative Zen Stone Plus, but then I started coming across reviews for the Cowon iAudio 7.

Whiist some reviews moaned the controls were harder to use than an iPod, I was impressed by the universally high praise for the sound quality, the compactness of the device and the impressively long battery life per charge.

I ended up buying a 4GB model from AdvancedMP3Players.com and it arrived the next day (although the polycarbonate protective case I ordered at the same tim took another 2 months to arrive!).

The iAudio 7 is about as big as the remote control key for my car and features a roughly 1 inch square full colour screen. I wouldn't want to watch a film on the screen, but it's plenty clear enough to display the menu and cover art of the tracks playing.

The unit is mostly 'piano black' plastic, but features (in my case) a red metal band around the outside. They do silver and black too, I believe, and an 8GB and 16GB version.

It weighs near enough nothing to not matter (The official spec says 53g) and when you connect it to a PC via a standard mini USB cable, it shows up as an external drive, so you can drag and drop MP3s (And lots of other media types) onto and off it.

So, that's requirement 1, 2, 3 and 4 ticked off. So far so good.

The controls divide people, but I personally find them an endless source of entertainment.

There are 3 dimples to the right of the screen on the front. Two are round and the third is a rounded groove.

In usual MP3 play mode the top circle is a kind of 'function' button (We'll come back to that) and the lower one is a play/pause button. The groove allows you to scroll up and down between menu settings (such as between tracks) or through a track in FFWD/REW mode.

They achieve this by being touch sensitive and work really well. People moan the interface is fiddly, but it really isn't and if you just want to play tracks and switch between them, then you'll be at ease with the controls in half an hour. Maybe not as idiot-proof as an iPod, but who wants to be thought of as an idiot?

On the top edge, as you look at the front, are a -/+ switch for volume (not controlled by the touch control, probably sensibly), a M (menu) button for selecting the menu system and a power/lock button (push left for on/off, push right to lock the controls).

The touch control can be a bit a sensitive, even to the point of it scrolling between tracks in your pocket so the 'Lock' feature gets a lot more use than I've ever given it on the other devices (in fact I NEVER used it on the other two).

So how does it stack up on requirement 5, good sound? Well, brilliantly in my view.

The sound is rich, rounded, clear and powerful. The iAudio 7 has a highly configurable Graphic Equaliser, but I often switch it off completely and just turn the volume up and it sounds excellent, with no messing with the original sound of the tracks as recorded. A number of reviews have commented how it is almost unique in having enough power to drive full size headphones intended for home hi-fi units.

Battery life is excellent too. It's NEVER shown less than 3 (of 4) bar so far as every time I plug it in to add tracks it recharges itself too! Various reports on the web suggest up 60 hours of play is possible on a single charge - far more than most other players (especially of such compact size).

Final requirement - Affordability? Well, my 4GB version cost me just £59.99 - Much less than a compatible iPod (or anything else of similar quality), but I found AdvancedMP3s were by far the cheapest retailer (they sell through Amazon too), so check them before buying elsewhere.

The iAudio 7 will record sound too (there's even an input for a microphone for better quality than the built in delivers) and play FM radio (I've never used either, though personally).

What don't I like? Well, I would've got the 8GB version instead (it was only £20 more) and the piano black does pick up greasy fingerprints (like the PSP for example), but they wipe off easily enough.

I also find that the white text of the track playing is sometimes a bit hard to read on the cover art on the screen and I've not found a way to change that at all.

Otherwise, it's a wonderful bit of kit (it's had a lot of use in the 3 months since I bought it) and I would recommend it to anyone.

PS September 2010 - Advanced MP3 Players ran a poll on who make the best sounding MP3 players and (when I posted this link) Cowon were way out ahead of everyone else - see the poll here.

What's this for then?

I have a blog elsewhere which I see as a kind of emotional safety valve - If something really winds me up or upsets me it helps me to write it down.

This, you'll be glad to know, is something altogether more light hearted.

I decided I'd create a blog to write about stuff that interests me.

Cars, Music, Gadgets, Trips, Technology, whatever...

So, let's get this party started...