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, 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 - 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 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...