Friday 6 May 2011

The National Gallery, London

I'm not an art expert or especially an art lover, but for a few years now (since my young son returned full of enthusiasm for a school trip to the place) I've felt I should perhaps stop in and see the collection at the National Gallery in London.

Dominating the backdrop to Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square the Gallery is easy enough to find and a grand building with an impressive columned entrance.

Entrance, thanks to the enlightened policy of some governments over the years (It's not always the case) is free, which probably explained the number of people on a Thursday lunchtime in April.

The collection(s) is (are) set out by period, with some as early as the 1200s, through the early 20th century (anything newer is in the Tate Modern - Also worth a visit).

To be honest, the early stuff was only of interest to me for its age and impressive condition. Most of it is religious in nature and naive in its composition and simplistic in colour. It doesn't really stack up to the later works, but it's interesting.

Interestingly though an odd painting here and there will startle with its naturalism (for example, the 16th century Portrait of Andreas Boulengier) in contrast to the icon-styled religious art.

There are a lot of Dutch and Italian works in the museum, including some incredibly detailed works by Canaletto of historic Venice, which caught my eye for their detailed draughtsmanship, incredible number of figures and for how unchanged Venice is.

There are Turners, Constables, Stubbs, Van Goghs, Monets, Manets (including one frankly dreadful painting of a woman that looked like it was painted by an amateur!) and dozens of other famous paintings.

Standing inches from "The Hay Wain", Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire", Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" or Renoir's "The Umbrellas" was slightly surreal. These are such incredibly well known images as to almost feel unreal and yet there they were.

Personal favourites were "The Umbrellas", Akseli Gallen-Kallela's "Lake Keitele" (An artist and painting I'd never heard of!), Van Gogh's "A Wheatfield, with Cypresses", Gainsborough's "Mr and Mrs William Hallett ('The Morning Walk')" (If there's an artist I DO like it's Gainsborough oddly, having been made aware of the skill of his technique on a visit to Petworth House some years ago) and Francisco de Goya's famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington (With awards added over the years).

Above : Lake Keitele

Above : Cornfield with Cypresses

I only had an hour (my lunch break) to spend in the Gallery and I wanted to spend longer, but it was a great place to visit and somewhere I recommend anyone with even half an hour (or a whole day) to visit.

Monday 2 May 2011

Eken M009S (MID) Android Tablet

OK, let's start by saying the Eken is no match for an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy Tab.

I paid £80 for mine, when Galaxys are £250-300 and iPads another £100 more, so my expectations weren't of comparability, I'm smart enough to know you don't get Ferrari performance for Nissan Micra money, but I had certain requirements for my Android tablet.

I picked the M009S for 3 reasons.

1. It was cheap for an Android 2.2 Tablet.
2. It had a 7" screen, which is a format I like, about the size of a paperback book.
3. I wanted it to read Zinio Publications and Kindle eBooks on, whilst allowing me to check emails, facebook updates and surf the net when the mood took me.

As I said, I only paid £80 for this and my initial impressions weren't bad on receiving it.

It's fairly flimsy and plastic feeling compared to an iPad or a Galaxy and the buttons have a cheap 'click' to them, rather an nicely cushioned feel, but it doesn't look or feel likely to break. Good value, at first sight, for £80.

I powered it up and found another cost-cutting point. The screen requires a solid push on it to react, unlike that on my HTC Desire phone or costlier tablets.

There's none of the swishing through through lists with a gentle brush of the finger, but it works ok.

The screen is a little muted in vividness too and only has 800x480 resolution. Stand alone, it doesn't look bad at all, but it doesn't compare side by side with the HTC Desire's lovely screen.

There are a couple of small speaker on the lower edge (when held in portrait mode), along with a power in socket, audio out socket, a slot for a Micro SD card and a longer slot which is allows fitting of a provided adaptor with two USB ports and an ethernet socket.

At the other end, there's a power on/off button and a "Menu" button and volume control on the right hand edge.

There's a button on the bottom front face, which works as a 'Back' button.

My first big disappointment came when trying to find my favourite Apps (as used on my HTC Desire) on the 'Android Marketplace'.

The included Marketplace was most definitely NOT Google and the vast majority of Apps I wanted were not included. Worse still, most of the Apps on the marketplace were in Chinese, rather less than useful to me...

Worse still, even installing many apps that work fine on my phone manually, they refused to work with the Eken's firmware out of the box.

Most importantly, neither Kindle or Zinio would connect to my accounts, even though I got them installed.

As a basic e-reader/media player/web browser it worked OK, but that's not what I'd bought it for and I was beginning to feel I'd bought a dud and was on the verge of sticking it on eBay for £50.

That I have persevered and have writen this review is testament to the efforts of Roger Calver on the forum.

Through searches I found his excellent Vestinious M009s Firmware which provides a whole new OS setup for the M009S.

There are risks in 'Flashing ROM', but I found the Vestinious 1.1.5 ROM worked flawlessly and I was able to restart my tablet with this OS installed in about 15 minutes of downloading it.

This transformed the device.

There's a Google Market (although, oddly, it seems to be missing some of the Apps I can find on the market on my phone, something I'm stumped about at the moment) with nearly all the apps you could want.

I quickly got most of my favourite apps installed, like Astro, Advanced Task Killer, Facebook, Better Keyboard 8, etc and set to work installing Zinio on it.

There is no Marketplace Zinio App yet, but some enterprising soul had pulled it off a Samsung (or other tablet it's bundled with) and posted it online. I'd had it working on phone for some weeks, with a few minor niggles.

It installed easily (even with the original Firmware), but with Vestinious I was able to connect to my Zinio account and download my magazines.

They read fine and a problem that I have on the HTC with the app crashing when switching orientation hasn't appeared on the Eken/Mid.

The 7" screen's a bit tight for reading on with my eyesight, but the neat TEXT option in Zinio lets me read the words in a text only form if the light is poor and I'll live with that for the convenience of the 7" format over the iPad's 10", which I'm sure would be easier to read.

I also put Kindle on, but initially couldn't get it to offer to register the device. I put this down to some problem with having a hard wired ethernet connection (using the adaptor) as once I disconnected that I was able to reinstall Kindle and was immediately offered a login.

Once this was done, the device appeared in "Manage Your Kindle" on the Amazon website and I was able to download all the books I'd got to the M009S.

The reader app works fine here and it even seems to remember where I am in a book between the HTC and the Eken which is rather a neat feature.

So, I now have a usable, valuable, functional Android Tablet for £80 and some time and effort.

I still have some minor issues with it, beyond those I mentioned previously.

At the moment it won't connect to the wi-fi hotspot on my HTC handset as that is an 'Ad-Hoc' network apparently (I believe this isn't too hard to put right) and the battery life is pretty poor (I reckon I get about 3 to 3 and a half hours from a charge reading magazines, considerably less with the wi-fi on) - EDIT : I did later get it work on the wi-fi on my HTC with no issues and it works well with my Mi-Fi from Orange.

I also can't get any barcode scanner software to work so far, but that's not too much of a problem.

If running BBC iPlayer is important to you, I wouldn't recommend this tablet. It runs, but it's like a series of stills rather than a flowing video. Odd, as it has no problem running AVIs at all, which look and sound pretty decent - So, it's pretty good if you want a stand alone media player.

I suspect the problem is the processor's a bit slow as it takes a few moments to switch orientation too.

Also, as you'd probably expect of a device this cheap, there's no GPS sensors, so no apps that uses that will work. More surprisingly, there's no Bluetooth connectivity, so you can't add a keyboard that way, if such is you want.

There's no multi-touch, pinch to zoom capability either, but I've read that there's a green LED version around (mine has a blue LED which illuminates when it's switched on) which does have this capability.

Would I buy another cheap M009S now, knowing what I do?

Absolutely, as it's doing what I bought it to do, but I can imagine there are a lot of rather frustrated people out there saying "Buy Cheap, Buy Twice".

The truth is, if you understand your requirements of an Android Tablet and this can satisfy them (hopefully I've cast some light on that), and can follow some fairly simple instructions you can get a pretty useful device for a cheap price.

Of course, if you can stretch to an iPad or a Galaxy Tab, you'd probably avoid all the complications I went through!