16 November 2009

Review: Humax Foxsat-HDR

Intro
We live in France, so normally UK TV is unavailable to us through the aerial. However, the satellite that feeds Sky TV in the UK also feeds most of western Europe with other channels, so equipped with a secondhand Skybox, we have been able to watch the FTV and FTA channels broadcast to the UK. This was fine in so far as it went, however, recording something was a bit of a palaver. First we had to set our DVD recorder with hard drive to record the AV1 channel, the one Sky came into the box on, at a specific time, then we had to make sure the Sky box was on the right channel and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we had to switch off the DVD recorder, because otherwise it wouldn't record. Yes, you could record different channels at different times without supervision because you have the autoswitch of the Sky box and you could set up multiple recordings on the DVD recorder, but it wasn't exactly easy or intuitive. Our Sky box is on its last legs, it sometimes takes ages to change channel and it gets locked onto Channel Five at times so we needed something new and shiny. I had considered going the HTPC route with MythTV, but that might be the next tech refresh for now I am very happy with the Humax Foxsat-HDR.

Review
Right, so onto the Humax and why it's great. To give you a better idea of what exactly this box is, it's a PVR (personal video recorder) designed for FreeSat, the UK satellite-based equivalent of the aerial-based Freeview. It gives you all available BBC channels, all ITV channels, Channel 4, E4 and more4 and Five, but not Five US or Fiver yet. It has twin tuners, so really benefits from a quad LNB setup (not that I have one, but more on that later). It has a 320 GB hard drive and a week-long EPG.

Unboxing
First up, getting it out of the box reveals not only the Foxsat itself, but a nice selection of cables - some AV CVBS cables; a SCART lead; HDMI lead. You get batteries for the remote, in short all you need. Well, all you need bar a loopthrough lead if you are going to one use it with a single LNB. With the Sky+ and Sky HD+ boxes these days you have multiple cables coming from your satellite dish because the receiver at the end of the arm in front of the actual dish (the LNB) contains multiple inputs, each of which travel down a cable, allowing to record one channel while watching another, etc. The FoxSat allows for this but doesn't force it on you. It has three socket F connections at the rear. Either you use connections 1 and 3 for your Quad LNB cables, or you just use connection 1 and a loop of cable between 2 and 3 for a single LNB. That's what we've got being an old Sky setup, so that's what we used.


You need to be careful to remove the plastic coating off not only the door at the front of the Foxsat, but also on the screen at the front of the box behind the door. Otherwise the remote has a hard time getting through. The remote that comes with is nice enough, but since we have a Logitech Harmony 525 I only used it for long enough to work out where the buttons that we'd use regularly were and then set up the Harmony.

Setup
When you first turn on the Humax, after you've screwed in the connectors for your single or quad LNB, there is a short set up period where the box reads the satellite and gets the channels it is able to. This read-through of available channels is extremely rapid in comparison with our old Sky box, but then it was over ten years' old. The Foxsat asks for your postcode to determine what BBC and ITV regions you should watch. Although we live in France, we still remember our postcodes for several of our previous UK addresses, so we only need to choose the one we wanted.

The Foxsat is obviously designed for the UK and is designed to watch UK TV, so the clock on the front, when shown, reports UK time - GMT or BST. This is not a problem and since recording is done merely by visiting the EPG and pressing OK to record the programme you want to (or the whole series), so the time is somewhat irrelevant compared to the juggling needed for recording previously.

EPG
The  EPG deserves a paragraph to itself. While it is supposed to be more technical than the SKY+ guide, I really don't mind, being of a more technical bent myself. The layout is clear and tabs across the top of the screen have different-coloured edges, and you hit the four coloured buttons to get to them. If you click OK on a programme you get a box pop up that offers you the choice of watching, recording a single programme or the series. If you choose Watch the FoxSat will switch over to your chosen programme when ready. If, however, you choose Record, the Foxsat won't necessarily turn over channels on you, it can record in the background. Best of all, even with a single LNB cable, you can record a second channel, and even watch a third simultaneously, the channels just need to be the same polarity and Graham Thompson, a user on the AV forum who has created a superb spreadsheet that shows exactly what you can record and watch simultaneously.

Recording/Playback/Time shifting
The real test is the way the FoxSat is able to handle recording and playback, but as yet, I've only had this machine a day or so so it's too early to tell, however, all the "synthetic" tests I've conducted have worked brilliantly, the real test comes tomorrow morning when I need to record Five in the morning and something on ITV1 that has a fifteen-minute overlap. The theory says that both should be recorded with no problem, if not my life may be at risk. If I don't post on this blog ever again you'll know that there has been foul play involved in my disappearance.

Conclusion
The DVD recorder we bought last year was okay. It does what it says it can do, pretty much. It has problems recording to DVDs now and the hard drive can "hitch" so I am happy to relegate it to purely being a DVD player. One of the best things about the FoxSat box (although untested as yet) is that I can send SD video out of the SCART on it to the DVD recorder, meaning that even if we recorded HD video, we can give someone a disc of it (in SD since DVDs don't support HD video, plus HD video is protected and cannot be copied). All in all, this FoxSat by previously-unknown-to-me Humax is an incredible bit of kit. If you live in the UK and still pay Sky a monthly subscription, this is a way out if you can afford the single outlay of 250UKP, and can give up some Sky-specific channels, like Sky One. If you live in Western Europe and want to watch and record UK TV this is ideal again. Right now at least, I am happy to give it 5/5

3 October 2009

Using GMail to wash emails for Thunderbird

For some reason, one of the three family accounts gets a lot of spam and phishing mails, and it's not mine or my wife's. It's our six year-old son who gets between 20-50 messages a day offering him penis extensions, Rolex watches and cheap meds. This weekend, I had a brainwave - why not use GMail as a spam filter? It works very well on my GMail account and since you can get mail from POP accounts, and forward mail to POP accounts with it, why not put it in the loop?

It's an easy process, here I shall describe using Thunderbird with GMail, but I reckon pretty much the same should be true of other POP3 email clients.

1. First set up a GMail account you want to use. It doesn't matter the name or email address, as long as you remember it and the password you are going to use with it. You will be asked for a "safety" email address in case of problems with your GMail account. Don't put the address you are forwarding through GMail. If you're having problems with your GMail account, the last thing you want to do is to have rescue emails sent to the same address!



2. Then set up an account in Thunderbird. Use the final email address you want - here we're going with made-up relative Brian Vost at my hostname podpics.org. We're just using the standard server details that I use for Podpics.


3. Then we set up a new POP3 import for GMail on this page in the GMail settings like so:


4. Then we set up forwarding like so (you can choose to keep the mails in your GMail inbox, but I find it easier to archive them. If you want to see them in GMail you can go to the All mail "box"):



5. Now we get Thunderbird to use the GMail POP server like so:



6. For outgoing messages I used the same SMTP server as I was using for my other accounts, but it seems you can also use GMail for that - I haven't tried.



There is a delay for getting your messages, so if you're the type that needs instant access to your emails you should probably just use GMail anyway. If you aren't as bothered, the security given by using this method is great.

30 August 2009

Reading ebooks just got much better









The first image shows one breakthrough in ebook reading: calibre. This tool will convert between the many incompatible ebook formats and most importantly output in .epub, the open, XML-based ebook format to hopefully rule them all. First step out of the way, converting the hundreds of .pdb and .prc format ebooks I have on my Palm to .epub.

Next step, finding an ebook reader that works on the Nintendo DSi now that I have System 1.4 because that killed the previous reader I had, a basic effort called DS Reader that has had no development for years, only handles plain .txt files and doesn't work with international characters like é and ß for instance. Lo and behold, DSLibris comes to the rescue (second pic), with an author who is interested in pushing further, so it supports .epub, .otf fonts (OpenType) and uses the DS held like a book. It doesn't handle .epub files with multiple html entries in the manifest very well yet, yet being the operative word, and some of the translations performed by calibre have had questionable results in DSLibris, but I'm not sure yet whether that's down to DSLibris or calibre since that's also in beta. Best of all with both, they use the Trac system for bug reporting, which means that the bug reporting and feature requesting system is completely open.

To my mind there are two real obstacles to making the DSi a Kindle for those with more sense than money. One is for Nintendo to allow access to the SD card on the DSi through a more open SDK, the other is to allow better third party access to the DSiWare shop and it seems progress is being made on the second front at least: http://www.nintendoworldreport.com/newsArt.cfm?artid=19854.

An exciting time, but more and more we see Nintendo holding back innovation.

22 August 2009

Vista bashing is sooo tired

For the umpteenth time reading on the web I get the message "Vista suxx, XP rules". I for one would never go back to XP. I have a modern machine with enough memory, a good enough graphics card and processor power to spare to be able to run Vista and you know what? It's better than XP for me.

  • Aero? That thing that you get "advised" to switch off if you have to use Vista? Get real bitches, turning off Aero reduces Windows to the kind of relationship it had with your graphics card in XP and before! I like the fact that now a whole bunch of operations can be offloaded to the graphics card, like window redraws for instance, without tasking the CPU.
  • The Start menu? We get told to replace it with Classic, just like Win2k, well, no, the fact you can hit the Windows key and just type the name of your app quickly to get to it rather than cruising up and down lists of items without handy identifiers like program icons in a carpal tunnel syndrome-inducing fashion is better why?
  • The fact that indexing is done behind the scenes for quicker searches? That's good too (not that it matters when I use Directory Opus anyway, the one program that no version of Windows is complete without.
I'm sure there are plenty of other technical reasons why I can rightly prefer Vista over XP, but I can't think of them right now and a rant is supposed to be written in a hurried fashion, otherwise the passion goes from it. Oh yes, and those that tell me I should use Linux? Maybe I will when the apps that I put bread on the family table are available for it. The time is getting closer, but it's not there yet.

Gah, an article without a picture?

21 July 2009

Voilà Wuala


I've been using Wuala for a couple of weeks now. It's a very handy p2p file sharing tool that means that you can have private online storage without needing to set up an ftp server, that works faster than an ftp server. You can create shared directories or better yet groups to which you invite your client and it gives you a two-way street for sharing assets. It's free of charge, multiplatform and all data is encrypted. Have a look for yourself: Wuala

7 July 2009

Downloadable DS demos on the Wii




Just a very quick one here. Did you know that you can download demos of games to your DS from your Wii (if you have both of course)? On the Wii you need the Nintendo channel. You go into it and choose the "Our Titles" item from the top of the screen once you have the list of videos. Now choose the bottom item from the list "Downloadable DS content" and you will see a whole bunch of downloadable stuff. You just need to make sure your DS is on, and in Download Play and the Wii will start sending the file once it has it. I just played Ninjatown on it, which is a cutesy RTS game with DS elements.

The only downside on the DSi is that the download is not permanent in the way software from the DSiStore is.

PS. We have a DSi and a DSLite here in the house, and the Wii is set to WPA for wi-fi (and so is the DSi) but the DS Lite had no problem downloading...

PPS. Please excuse the execrable page layout. Making tables in Blogger isn't fun in a hurry with the stupid size of the edit window, having to do it in HTML and so on. Also, the text in the pics is obviously in French - no choice since we live in France even though the rest of the Wii is in English - but the locations of the buttons to hit will still be the same.

23 June 2009

DDD update

Well it may be that all is not lost. I have confided the drive to a friend who has an industrial-grade data recovery package that may be able to find my stuff... - update, yeah, all was lost. :( Had to start again from scratch.

19 June 2009

Dickhead data destruction

So yesterday (or rather the early hours of yesterday morning) should have been great. After months of trying I finally cured a problem I had where I had had Vista installed on two drives and the one that was D: wouldn't relinquish being system even though everything was done on the C: drive, even to the point where D: was absolutely necessary for the booting of C:, without D: on the bus the computer wouldn't boot. After hunting around for ages and having tried all manner of things to fix the situation I found this intriguing thread and piped up with my problem wondering if it could be resolved using the same method as hnyman on the forum had cured his similar-seeming problem. Pages of thread ensued, complete with my photographs of the monitor for situations where copying pages of info out by hand was not a realistic idea. So 4AM 18.06.09 I finally solved the issue, not using the software that the forum was for: EasyBCD, but another tool called BootIt NG, commonly known as BING. It's a scary tool for neophytes like me, but with handholding and patience from the marvellous Jake Johnson - Coolname007 on the neosmart forum - I got it so that D: was no longer necessary to my machine! Yay!

I should have left it at that I retired to my bed, fatigué mais heureux, but oh no. In my exhaustion the thought obviously meandered through my brain that I needed to teach D: a lesson - mess me about for months would you? I am your master now.

So what did I do? What the fuck did I do?! I formatted D: HA! That'll teach this inanimate bit of electronics a thing or two about the real boss of the computer... Great, I even felt satisfied. I could definitely go to bed now... no, wait a minute. Let's call this partition "NewTek:" and put all my NewTek-related stuff on it! Yes, great idea, I can just go to that temp directory I set up on E: and copy everything out of it onto the defunct D: That way I'll have my LightWave on there (ooh look, peak speed of 89MB/s), plus all the documents and images I've worked on for the company (hey, nearly done now, just another 500 MB to go) and what else? Oh yes (the copy has finished), I know I'll put my LW Content folder on there, complete with the lighting plan I made of our living room when we wanted to move stuff around, and the very important project I'm working on for Nelson Mandela, and all the example content I can learn fr... hang on, where's the lw content folder? The blood drained from my face and I could feel an incipient duodenal ulcer just ready to spring into blood-curdling action. The fucking. lw content. directory. Containing about 5GB of assets and material. Was. on. D:!

And so started the day for me. I went to bed thinking that things would look better in the warm light of day, but after about ten minutes of thrashing around and gnashing my teeth I got up again and tried to recover my fuck up. And here I am at nearly 3AM the next day thinking to myself over and over "why don't you need qualifications to run a computer? A licence or some kind of training to make sure you don't charge around like a bull in a china shop as I had done"

So here I sit, writing this blog post as I wait for GetDataBack for NTFS to go through all the files on the drive, knowing inside that it won't do any good and that I could probably have recreated my work in the time I've wasted trying to repair the damage I did. So, I'm going to bed. This saga will end in one of two ways: the worst, but most likely I fear, is that I've lost ten years of work and had better get a move replacing it. The sunny alternative is that a program, perhaps even GetDataBack recommended by my good friend Peter Jespersen, will completely recover all my lw content. I'd like to say a big thank you as well to everyone that has helped me with this, as much for their shoulders for me to cry on as actual technical help.

That's it. My eyes have gone woggly. It's a technical term. G'night. I shall keep y'all posted on progress and make this post a little purtier with pics, etc. maybe even dancing girls, I don't know.

15 June 2009

Review: Superplexus

Superplexus is a 3D maze toy that involves you turning a plastic ball around and around on all axes trying to get a ball bearing from 1-100. Although it was a flop for manufacturer Tiger Electronics when released in 2002, it's an excellent pastime for "grown-ups" who are waiting on a render, or want to concentrate on something away from the dreaded computer. I will do a video to put on this post as soon as I can figure out the best way to do it - I'm currently thinking of strapping the camera to my head - because with the ball bearing not being very big, it can be difficult to see in the crowded interior of the ball. All I can say with certitude is that this is something that everyone ought to have a go at.

I've had a look on eBay in the US, UK, France and Germany and there are all examples available there for less than 30 (£|$|€), so go to it!

To learn more about Michael McGinnis, the inventor, or Superplexus itself, go to: http://www.santarosa.edu/~mmcginni/myart/invention/superplexus/

Wii Homebrew


I've hesitated for a long while before posting this because, well just because, but it's all info freely available on the web, I just Googled for things (I did not "Bing" them). Since System 4 came out for the Wii, with obstruction of the famous Zelda save game loophole, it was thought that the Homebrew Channel was dead and buried, but it may be easier to install than before (I didn't try before System 4, but since I don't own any Zelda games I would think that method would be harder).

To start off, all you need do is visit this site. It provides you with details of how to go about installing the Homebrew Channel on your System 4 Wii. Why would you want to? Well, it's not for piracy, despite what official sources say. There are a growing number of independent applications that a) don't require official licences or packaging and b) this is the way new developers start, without the learning avenue of independent thought all we'll get is ever-safer sequelitis or movie tie-ins from the few remaining established publishers at huge prices.

You will need an SD card for this to work, and SDHC cards and MicroSDs in SD card adaptors work for me having tested an 8GB SDHC card, a 256 MB SD card and a 2 GB MicroSD.

Once you have this, visit the site I listed above and get the software you need to get it installed. I used the Bannerbomb tool and the first piece of software I installed (after the Homebrew Channel, obviously) was the Homebrew Browser, a self-updating browser of all the games and apps that are available directly through the channel - My faves include the 2D Portal games Portii and Still Alive; Picross for the Wii (since there isn't an official one); Google Earth for the Wii in WiiEarth; various utilities for loading and saving games and Miis and the not-very-useful-but-good-demos of Balance Board tools and Spirit Level. The Homebrew Browser is available on the same site as the Homebrew Channel itself. There are also numerous emulators of games (like Scumm, Quake and Doom) and platforms (including the NES, SNES and N64 obviously, but also the Amiga and even Mac, although I haven't tried any yet).

Anyway, the Homebrew Channel will doubtless be "cured" with the next system update again, but it's a great thing to have. Publish your homebrew game to the Homebrew Browser and let me know so I can try it out!

4 June 2009

Review: Canon Digital Ixus 95 IS

We've had a Pentax Optio for a few years now. It replaced our Fuji that was our first digital camera, so the immediate leap in resolution, screen size, speed and image quality amazed us. This replacement comes faster on the heels of the Pentax, but even so, amazes us in its own way. One of the reasons we needed a new camera was that the Pentax's startup time was seemingly an age - when most of your photos are of kids it's very easy to lose the moment, so the fact that the Canon is ready to go in less than a second is more a necessity than a luxury.

We're not photographers so by leaving it in full auto we don't feel limited and actually appreciate the speed at which it reacts to new subject material (such as going into portrait mode when it detects one or more faces). It does mean that the camera is never silent as it busily whirs to change the focal distance and aperture, but it's good that it's busy trying to make sure I get the photo I want.

Hardware
The camera is smaller even than the Pentax we had before, but feels very solid in use. The zoom control is the twist-around-the-shutter-button type, while I preferred the Pentax's dedicated button, but by the same count, the switch on the back between full auto, program and video means you don't have to go into menus to video something like you do on the Pentax. The screen on the back of the camera is also accompanied by an optical viewfinder if you'd rather make the battery last as long as possible, but since it's not TTL and you don't have the same info overlay you do with the screen, I don't think it's really a worthwhile addition to the camera. The macro on this camera is from 3cm compared to the Pentax's 10cm, which makes for better shots of insects and the like (not that I've photographed any yet to find out if the autofocus places emphasis on just the wrong part like the Pentax did). The camera apparently has the same Digic 4 processor as Canon's high end DSLRs looking for faces and other subject types the whole time and the camera certainly feels responsive. There is also red eye correction while shooting or afterwards that works very well in most cases, although eyes that are side on get left a little red, as is usual. Lastly for me, the fact that the camera supports Canon's PictBridge system (as might be expected) means that you can hook the camera directly to the printer and print out perfect shots.

Software
I didn't install the CD that came with the camera, but it's the usual mix of Canon stuff: the picture navigator and so on. They are okay as far as manufacturer software is concerned, but I have no need of them. So let's turn to the way the camera's UI is organised. First off the Play button on the back allows you to simply turn on the camera to show pictures you've taken, without "extruding" the lens and when in program mode, the different settings are easy to reach through a simple menu system. It's a shame that you can't do a rule of thirds display in auto mode (seemingly) since that would really help with composition since you no longer need to worry about exposure, white balance or anything else, but this is a small exception to an otherwise well-organised camera.

picture taken with Nintendo DSiWhen you're connected directly to a PictBridge printer, a new screen pops up to allow you to select one or more shots to print out. My only gripe here is that although the printer displays a panel saying "let your camera choose settings" you still need to set the paper tray on the printer, otherwise you get lovely photo prints up in the corner of an A4 sheet if you're not careful, this however is almost certainly an EBKAC rather than a problem with the camera. Even so, what's the point of asking what paper size you want in the camera without at least verifying that there's paper of the requisite size in the printer, and where?

Conclusion
We bought the camera for 199€ and it came with a Canon case and 4GB SD card, about the same price we paid for the Pentax four years ago, and half what we paid for the Fuji in 2000 and it's certainly a fine camera for the money - lightning fast in use and producing some great-looking images, particularly when printed. One of the reasons we settled on this specific camera was thanks to a very in-depth review on the Photography Blog website and I recommend you go there to see example images taken with this camera since they set up specific test cases including chromatic aberrations, macro tests and more that I really don't have the time or inclination to do. Overall, this camera is great. There is very little to complain about if you have a PictBridge printer as well for very quick, good-looking snaps. For more serious photography, why are you even looking at a compact camera? 4/5

6 May 2009

Review: acekard 2i



The acekard 2i is a card for running homebrew DS software. It sits in the slot where you'd normally put your game of choice and can be used quite successfully to run dodgy copies of games as it turns out, but my main reason for getting it was to get reading material on my DSi. The acekard 2i I bought came with a 4GB microSD card and a USB adaptor for same to enable reading/writing on the PC. I bought it from the UK to take advantage of the strong Euro and so it cost about 25€ instead of the 35€ asked for locally. In the thrill of getting it I also downloaded some pirated games; Colors; Lemmings and the DSReader software.

Pirated games
Obviously, the main reason these cards are decried as pirates' playthings is the ability to put multiple games on the memory card, so let's get this pernicious aspect out of the way first. I wanted to see just how easy it was. A search of Google later and I had Sonic Rush, a game I didn't own, on there. Because I put Sonic Rush on there and played it, it meant I went out and bought an original copy of the game within a day (above all for Finn since it's just too fast for these tired old synapses), and thus ended my experimentation with dodgy software.

Colors
This is a natural paint package that uses the pressure sensitivity of the DS' lower screen in order to paint images. You can save your progress as an animation with some amazing results having been uploaded to the Colors site, like this astonishingly-lifelike polar bear and cub. The controls are intuitive, I just wish I was more artistic to be able to profit better from it.

Lemmings
Yes, this is exactly the Amiga classic. There are a couple of rejigs to suit the smaller screen real estate available to the DS, namely a zoom in function that allows you to get up close and personal, but otheriwse this is the complete Lemmings and the Oh no more Lemmings add-on level pack.

DSReader
This is the only homebrew reader I could get to work nicely. It only works with standard US-ASCII text files, doesn't give a page number or progress bar for where you are in the book and doesn't support more advanced page layout, such as provided in the XML-based ePub format. That said, it displays across both screens (holding the DS as though you were playing a game, rather than a book), supports size-adjustable, anti-aliased TTF fonts, can invert the screen and keeps track of up to three bookmarks per book. I tried several other ebook readers - namely the ascii text reader built-in in the acekard OS (didn't handle para breaks as nicely as DSReader, not anti-alised, but on the plus side screen orientation is user-definable), ReadMore (Bjorn Geisler's stalled alpha version doesn't support screen interaction on the DSi), DSLibris is defunct seemingly and I didn't like the look of TextReader. I really wish I could code, or knew someone who worked for Nintendo so I could propose a legitimate DS cartridge, with a microSD slot in it, like the acekard and a kick-ass ebook reader. The DS would kick seven bells out of Kindle, etc. and ebooks could be sold on the DSi store in additon to the MicroSD card being readable elsewhere. The reader would need to cope with a variety of ebook formats since there isn't a settled standard yet (apart from maybe ePub) and support page orientation, Unicode, font anti-aliasing, etc.

Other
As I posted in a previous rant, the DS is ripe for more useful software than just games. As Colors shows, the possibility to be creative doesn't depend on a large screen and Windows or OS X. Even Nintendo's own sound tool, while gimmicky, encourages the creative side of users. I did try a couple of other apps. DSOrganize, while promising also suffers from the same inability to use the touchscreen on the DSi, Moonshell seemingly didn't offer anything over and above what the acekard OS could do since it wouldn't play the dpg movie I converted and while DSVideo might have worked I balked at using 2GB on the card to store a paltry 90min movie in 256x192 resolution!

I've since found other software, but I cannot access my MicroSD card on the PC for some reason. While it still works fine on the DS and I am in the middle of a couple of books I shan't reformat the thing to see if that cures the ailment, otherwise I will be stuck with what I have forevermore (or until I buy a new memory card - isn't it amazing how cheap and tiny MicroSD cards are?!)

Since this is a review, it needs a score. If only I was a coder I would happily give this 5/5, but since I am but a n00b and have to wait for others to give me what I want, it has to just be 4/5. That said, if you are a coder, please get one and get in touch so we can make beautiful ebook reading together? And if you want to use your DS for more than just Mario in all his guises and you want some of this get the acekard 2i, get it now. Now, can I get back to reading Crime and Punishment please?

1 May 2009

Saving water


My six-year old son told me earnestly yesterday that I should take showers instead of baths, since a bath used twice as much water as a shower. In theory I agree, except that since I have MS my balance is shot and taking a real shower is a somewhat worrying experience, let alone standing in a slippery bathtub with one arm raised like some kind of demented ape. Having said that, for just getting wet for the sake of getting clean I completely agree, however nothing beats the sybaritic experience of just laying in a bath of hot water, reading a good book (Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk). Given our aquatic origins I would think that this is a natural state for us and so far more relaxing than even being supine on the sofa. While a bath takes twice as much water as a shower in my son's example, an hour-long shower would doubtlessly use more water and allow for less reading (I believe showers over a certain length of time are referred to as "waterboarding" in some countries). So while I have doubtless used more water than I should, my general sense of wellbeing has improved in a way incomparable with the amount of water wasted. Now, must turn off more lights to make my carbon footprint smaller again...

28 April 2009

Utility software for the DSi would be good

Nintendo could really make the DSi a useful tool as well as just a games machine. If they opened the SDK to third parties free of charge we could get:

  • Wi-fi finders
  • QR code readers
  • Calculators
  • PIM tools
  • ebook reader supporting ePub format

All these things would make it far more useful. Nintendo could open up a kind of DSiWare shop where these things were sold (hey, hang on, they already have one! ;)) and given Nintendo's desire for control they would presumably have to vet every entry, but having said that there's already a small but thriving homebrew community for the console that could be tapped. This would be an enormous boon to the little console and see its use other than just for games. The screen is fairly low resolution, but given what has already been achieved I don't see this as a problem, people just need to think around it. Just think, if there were an "official" DGP Player (Nintendo's DS video format) then there could be sales of movies (in YA format) on the DS shop too, perfect for cartoons and the like for little Johnny in the back of the car given the DS' long battery life. Everything just needs to play from the SD card, to ease up space on the main machine. Best of all, this would get away from the shadowy world that is homebrew currently, relying on third party "dodgy" add-ons like the acekard 2i I have that could potentially be used for warez. Please, please, do it Ninty!

24 April 2009

Review: Gremlins (1984)

This film still had a 15 certificate on DVD, so I was a little worried about watching it with my son, but really the rating is a little confusing. The only bad language in Gremlins217 is someone getting called an asshole, and the violence is nothing worse than Doctor Who and a lot less realistic. Finn, who is six found it an amusing romp and loved when Gizmo drove the car. For me, it's impressive to see how well the effects stand up today, with large crowds of the evil mogwai marching down the road and a clever trick in the cinema where I would say that they filmed the seats three times and then projected two of the filmed occasions on screens on either side of the seats to give the impression that the cinema is much larger, and more full than it is. As is now common in our jumpcut! faster! more! world, it does seem a little slow, but it's still good. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates were shining stars when this film came out so I wondered what they'd be doing since. Phoebe Cates married Kevin Kline in 1989 and basically retired from acting, and Zach Galligan is still in films today, but not ones that garner major box office for Amblin... 3/5

Review: Picross

Picross? Pic-crack more like. This is a very simple game, a bit like the old logic problems, but reduced to even simpler aims. There was a game on the GameBoy Advance called Mario's Picross originally, and this is a DS version with all the abilities that the DS brings. In smaller puzzles, like the starter 5x5 grids, or the basic 10x10 grids, the puzzle is presented in its entirety on the lower screen, where you mark boxes with squares or crosses in order to bhuild a pixelised picture of something. In the later levels, grids are 15x15, 20x20 or even 25x20 on the last level and at that point, the ability to either put down a square or cross is joined by a scroll function and a zoom function to grant you an oversight of the entire puzzle, like the top screen (not something I use often). In normal mode you are increasingly penalised when you make a mistake - with your first mistake two minutes are added to your total time, then four, then eight and eight and eight and so on. If you go over an hour you have failed. With free mode you get no penalties, but also no help - you have to keep rearranging your pieces until you solve the puzzle. This was a game I got from the supermarket because it was on offer cheap. I also got it to try and get Fona playing a little on the DS. It didn't take for a couple of months, but now she loves it.

This may be simple, but like the best puzzle games it doesn't need to be any more complex to keep you engaged, sometimes for hours at a time. Best of all, if you wish to try it for yourself, you don't need a DS or to spend money. While looking for images to pepper this review with I found a site called wiipicross where you can play the games for yourself. Try it, but don't blame me if you become less productive... 5/5

21 April 2009

Review: Blast from the Past (1999)


Blast from the Past (219) is a sweet little film. The story revolves around Christopher Walken's character Calvin and his pregnant wife Helen, played by Sissy Spacek. Calvin is a scientist who makes his own fallout shelter in the garden of his house because of growing nuclear tensions. There is a party in the house, the night Kennedy makes the Cuban speech on TV and so Calvin gets rid of the guests and he and his wife go down into the fallout shelter. At that moment, a US jet fighter has engine trouble and the plane falls on the house leading Calvin to think the bombs are falling, so he locks the door and sets the timer for 35 years... Their son Adam is born and brought up in the sheltered environment of the well, shelter, and is taught French, German and Latin by dad, and dancing by mum. When the 35 years are over and the locks automatically disengage, Adam gets sent out to find supplies and a girlfriend and comedy ensues. The film is not a great classic, but it is a little gem, sweet and perfectly-formed. There are all manner of time-related misunderstandings and Adam has baseball cards and stocks worth millions (though he doesn't know it). The score I give it might seem low considering how much I like the film, but it's not really worth more... 3/5

20 April 2009

Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Not your average teenage film... Donnie Darko is like a piece of jazz, it plays all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. That doesn't stop it from being an enjoyable experience by any means, but it does mean that when the film ends you will more than likely be nonplussed by its giant non-sequitur nature. This is the theatrical version, so apparently a little more obscured than the later director's cut version with its extra twenty minutes of story, exposition and clues. The story goes something like: Donnie is sleepwalking and plagued by a giant, scary bunny rabbit called Frank who tells him to do things like flooding the school and burning down someone's house. He's asleep on a golf course when his house gets hit by a falling jet engine. He gets a girlfriend called Gretchen with whom he goes to an old lady's house. He enters the house by the cellar door and disturbs two burglars who turn out to be the school's resident bullies. Gretchen gets pushed into the road and run over by a guy called Frank, who is wearing a scary bunny costume. Donnie goes home with the dead Gretchen in his arms and steals his sister's car keys and drives up to a high point overlooking their home and sees the engine fall...

In short, this isn't an easy film and if my synopsis has made it confusing, then this isn't the film for you. However, if this synopsis intrigues you, watch the film then go to this site and read through. Oh and don't bother going to www.donniedarko.com because it was long replaced by one of those phishing sites, you can go to the Wayback Machine at archive.org and take it back to roughly 2004 and you can play on the site. 4/5(220)

19 April 2009

Our films


We have 440 DVDs in our collection. I have a note of them all on my Palm and we have them arranged on bookcases around our living room. The ones in the portrait photo are in "Finn's collection" and on the other shelves they are in ours. Since we have all these DVDs, and since there are a couple still in their shrink wrap(!) we decided (well I did) that we should watch them all at least once to make their purchase worthwhile. Now, this is not a problem with the films in Finn's collection, so I struck those off the 440 to watch at least one recorded time. Also, TV series on disc would take a disproportionate amount of time to watch, so I knocked those off too. That still left us with over 260 to watch. With my work the way it is now, it's not always easy to find time together to watch a film, but one of the strictures placed on this watching was that we both had to watch the films, even if it was topics we didn't care for.

Anyway, the Star Wars films are part of our collection, so watching TPM and AotC counted against the total we had to watch, so even though they are really bad, there was one good thing that came from watching them, we're now down to 220 left to watch (and with eps 3-6 still to go, that'll be another four off the list). I shall try to remember to do a little review of the films we watch on here in case gives the reader (there's probably only one, right?) the incitement to watch a film.

Goodbye Lenin 4/5(223)
This is a lovely film. It starts as a farce, with the mother of a young guy (Alex) in East Berlin going into a coma (bear with me okay) just before the Berlin wall falls and so missing the changeoever to a capitalist society. Alex is allowed to take her home to recover when she wakes, but on the understanding that she is subject to no shocks, so Alex rearranges the flat back into its communist state, getting rid of all the new furniture they bought and so on. He enlists his wannabe film director friend in helping to make fake news bulletins to cover up lapses in the deception and the humour is based around these cover-ups. At about the 2/3rds point, another event occurs that changes the tone of the film to bittersweet and it plays out beautifully. 5/5

PS. Pics taken with the DSi camera

OMG why are Star Wars Eps. I and II sooo bad?

Crikey,

What stopped me from noticing the first time around? Finn want to see the Star Wars movies again, so we watched The Phantom Menace (TPM)(222) yesterday and we've just finished watching Attack of the Clones (AotC)(221) this afternoon. What a terrible start to TPM, the text is scrolling up the screen and already I'm yawning. Jar Jar Binks has not aged well, from his tennis ball head that actors can't seem to stare at, to his ridiculous "Uncle Tom-esque" mannerisms. And then in AotC he speaks to a whole senate of several thousand delegates?! And as for that film, from the text onwards... okay, if several thousand star systems are seceding from the republic and since the republic hasn't yet completely collapsed that implies several more thousand star systems are still loyal, exactly how many Jedi are there to police them? No wonder they are feeling overstretched...

Yes, seeing Yoda leaping around after Count Dooku is fun, but it's not that fun. And what is it with Jedi? Once they become teachers, they completely lose track of the Force? From Qui-Gon Jinn saying he felt nothing out of the ordinary while his padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi was jumpy at the start of TPM, to then completely ignoring the very obvious danger signals while his padawan Anakin was suggesting something might be amiss in the chase sequence with the assassin? Bah, still at least our great minds thought alike on a possible suggestion for why everything in the 1-3 trilogy seems far more advanced than thirty years later in the 4-6 trilogy. It's the war innit? If you think back to the glowing and glorious 1930s and then the austerity after the second world war, it's kinda similar, no?

Anyway, George Lucas: EPIC FAIL

ps. I know it's been ten years since TPM came out, so I possibly a little late with this opinion piece, but I'm not sure it can be said enough.

16 April 2009

Review: Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on The Cliff)


Just back from seeing the sublime "Gake no ue no Ponyo", known in English as "Ponyo on The Cliff" and "Ponyo sur la Falaise" in French. It's a hand-drawn animation that really shows up CG in the opening sequence with thousands of moving elements (shoals of fish swimming). In terms of intended audience age the story is pitched between Totoro and Kiki and there were several nods to previous Miyazaki films with the flooded road being reminiscent of Chihiro's flooded railway, Fujimoto resembling a thin male Yubaba, and the baby they meet being a normal-sized version of the big baby (no, not George Dawes) from the same film. The story goes that a five-year old boy called Sosuke rescues a goldfish trapped in a discarded jar and names it Ponyo. The goldfish is actually the offspring of Fujimoto and the goddess of the sea and when Ponyo is in Sosuke's company she realises she really wants to be human too. There are plenty of extended wordless sequences that just allow you to appreciate the quality of the animation and the film is never boring. Where it sits on my chart of Miyazaki films? Difficult to decide just on one viewing, but it's up there with Totoro and Laputa for sure. The only fly in the ointment is that there's no release date for the UK for it, and although this is not even a really widescreen production (I would say 1.76:1 at most) it really deserves to be seen on the big screen. 4/5

13 April 2009

Review: Monsters vs. Aliens

We've seen this film twice now, once in 2D once in stereoscopic. Before I proceed onto a potted review of the film itself, I just want to talk about the difference seeing it in 3D made - not much apart from a lighter wallet. Seeing it in stereoscopic added another 9€ to the costs of the tickets and didn't actually add much to the experience. Sure, there were the ooh bits where the scientist in Antartica played with the bat and ball game and a few other such moments but in the main it didn't really add a lot to the film.

Onto the film itself. We saw it in French so some of the dialogue was no doubt lost to us, but it was a fairly standard plot with the creature from the black lagoon, the blob, the 50' woman, the fly and Gamera all of whome have been captured by the government and put to work defeating an alien invasion. Lots of stuff for grown-ups familiar with the genre, from the Close Encounters theme, Steve McQueen's baseball throwing to the initial missiles from the attacking warplanes hitting a shield à la ID4. The quality of the animation is splendid as you'd expect apart from a couple of the vehicles in the Golden Gate bridge sequence where it looked like the previz models and animation got left in final compositing! Bob (the blob character) must have been a swine to animate but his seamless nature never wavered.

All in all, enjoyable, beautiful, but nothing startling. 3/5

11 April 2009

Review: Nintendo DSi




Just trying to write a post on the blog from the DS itself. Obviously, typing isn't much fun, and although the DS has a camera I don't know if there's a way to upload a pic.

There is handwriting recognition but it is very slow although it does recognise 'natural' writing, rather than using glyphs like the Palm. Too tiring to continue...




Okay, so carrying on on the more normal format of the PC. Onto generalities first.

Build
The new DSi is not as high, slightly wider and the same depth as the DS Lite and rather than the lacquered finish of its predecessor the DSi is matt black (or white, if you're a girl). The power button has been moved to the left side of the screen inside the clamshell, and the volume slider that was mounted on the front of the DS Lite is on the left side of the console. The power supply socket is different to the DS Lite's and it also won't get into your DS Lite case. I never used the Gameboy Advance slot in the front of the DS Lite, so I don't care that it's not on the DSi, but apparently those that like homebrew software for their DS are disappointed. The acekard 2i I just ordered apparently works just fine for this purpose (I bought it to play MP3s and read books, believe it or not).

The buttons are less raised (with the exception of the shoulder buttons that now stand proud of the console rather than being flush with the case as in the DS Lite. I'm not sure why this decision was taken as it makes the console less comfortable for these hads to hold, especially in Mario Kart. The buttons also now have an annoying micro-switch click meaning that late night gaming sessions in bed are annoyingly loud.

It is nice that you can hold down the select button and use the volume controls to raise and lower the brightness of the screen in-game, rather than having to turn the unit off to do so, and the quit hit of the power switch that returns you to the main menu is also appreciated.

Software
The DSi has an updated interface that is far more "iPhone" than the DS Lite with icons you can swish around, and has three major new additions, one of which is the main reason for buying the DSi. These are a camera (or pair of them, one inside, one out), a sound tool and a web browser (that I used to post the start of this post). The browser is the same Opera-sourced browser as the Wii has, only rejigged a bit for the smaller screen real estate of the DSi. It has a column mode to read web pages adjusted to fit onto the two screens and scrolling up through them. Overview mode by contrast uses the top screen to show the whole page in miniature with a red box on it showing the area shown on the bottom screen.

The DSi shop is like the Wii shop on that console. The first reason to go there is to get the browser (free of charge) and to claim your 1,000 DSi points to spend on other software. You cannot limit access to the DSi shop meaning that small fingers can go there and download software without your wanting to. The Parental lock only affects what games can be played on the DSi, a serious oversight in my opinion. The DSi shop also uses its own "currency" DSi points, that don't seem to be interchangeable with Wii points or DS stars, resulting in a overcomplex system.

The built-in camera and sound software means that the DSi might get used less for playing actual games than playing around and both offer some nice features. I particularly liked the face tracking in the camera software to put a moustache or glasses on a face, and the sound playback altering pitch and duration always raises lots of giggles from Finn.

Conclusion
If it hadn't been for the ability to browse the web (using a WPA2 wifi connection) and use an SD card for storage I probably wouldn't have looked twice at the DSi. The DS Lite is a fantastic little game console and hard to improve upon. The DSi is not for everyone in my opinion, if all you want to do is play games then you don't need it. With the problems with the parental controls and buttons I can't give it more than 3/5.

8 April 2009

Getting a DSi

I went into GAME today and for the first time ever, took them up on their trade-in policy that has never seemed very generous before to get a new Nintendo DSi in exchange for my old DS Lite (the one Mark bought me as it happens) and two games (since my selection is fairly widespread, one of my games wasn't accepted since it was American, and the fact that the power supply for the DSLite is UK was a no-go either). I will post a review on here once I have it, but two things have got me particularly excited by the new machine. The first is the browser. Obviously, it's on a DS! I don't expect it to be like Fx3 on my PC, but it will be handy for looking up films on IMDB or checking my mail (not replying!). It might be possible to do some posts for the blog on here with it, which interests me (although they will be by necessity fairly short). The first thing that really excites me is to do with the browser actually. Since the DSi has an SD card slot it means that I may be able to use it as my ebook reader - perhaps Mobipocket will see this as a big market and make a version for the DSi downloadable to the machine... The second big opportunity I see with it is the camera. I don't see any QR code scanner software available for it right now, but I don't doubt it will swiftly come.

31 March 2009

Why I won't buy Sony


It seems people have short memories. I told my brother I wouldn't buy a PlayStation 3 or a Bravia TV like him and he was nonplussed, he didn't know why I wouldn't give the giant megacorporation more of my money (I have a PlayStation, a Mini-Disc player and various other bits from years gone by). In short, here are the reasons behind my decisions:

Rootkits and DRM
It wasn't enough that Sony were putting rootkits on music CDs in 2005. When confronted with the info by Mark Russinovitch, they issued an uninstaller to remove the rootkit (something very difficult for an end-user to do short of completely reinstalling the machine), but replaced it with a dial-home program! In the ensuing outcry they issued a complete uninstaller. Sony also started using a protection program on their DVDs that didn't agree with plenty of DVD players (including some of the company's own models). Finally, it was discovered that their MicroVault USB keys also had rootkits installed on them. (Ed's note: Admittedly this rootkit stuff won't bother my brother since he is a member of the church of Steve Jobs)

Aibo
Aibo was a really cool idea. A robot dog that you could teach tricks? How cool is that? Unfortunately Sony forgot that some of the fun of discovery is exploration and clamped down on people experimenting with new and expensive acquisition. Fortunately, people wanting to mess with robotic lifeforms now have Pleo, a robotic dinosaur, which positively encourages experimentation with its USB port and SD card slot. (Ed's note: Sony's robotics division was closed in 2005, and it seems that Ugobe, maker's of Pleo, are running into difficulties too - seems the time isn't yet right for robotic pets. Sigh.)

Batteries
In total over seven million Sony laptop batteries have had to be recalled over between 2006-2008, despite Sony apparently knowing of a problem in their batteries' construction since mid-2005.

Blu-Ray Disc
I'm not going to argue over the relative merits of HD-DVD and BD but it does feel like there was some trickery going on here to ensure that Sony actually won this format war after having lost twice before (with Betamax and Mini-Disc and you can possibly add a third in there in the shape of the insidious Memory Stick format). Certainly the fact that the PlayStation 3 has a BD player was a big contributory factor in the format winning. Since it's the only choice in high definition I am sure that I will end up getting a Blu-Ray player at some point, but it won't be made by Sony (okay, okay, the drive will, or it will be licensed by Sony, but I can't escape that can I?)

Corporation - An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility. (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary)

All these opinions are my own and don't belong to anyone else. Any errors made in this post are my own responsibility and will be corrected. They are on my blog to make sure I don't forget why I dislike Sony and are not there for any other purpose.

28 March 2009

Review: Logitech Z-5500 THX 5.1 sound system


I've wanted an amp and speaker setup since our Aiwa stereo packed in two years ago. That was only Pro-Logic, but there wasn't an easy replacement for it. Either we went for a dedicated tuner/amp and speakers or we were faced with having to buy a separate DVD player with amp and speaker combo, which I really didn't want to do. Then I spotted this set and found a few very positive reviews on it. Logitech's top-of-the-range speaker system has been around a while now (I found reviews from 2007), and I can see why in this age of rapid turnaround and obsolescence that is so. The Z-5500 handles Dolby Digital, Pro-Logic II, dts and is THX certified. The connections on the back of the control unit are one SPDIF optical, one SPDIF coax and three 3.5mm connectors. These can either be used for one direct 6-channel input, from a computer for instance, or three separate 3.5mm inputs - I have two used right now, one for an Airport connection and one for the Wii. There's also one 3.5mm input on the side for connections that aren't as "permanent" and a 3.5mm output for headphones.

The four main speakers are identical, while the centre speaker looks similar, but is on its mount horizontally rather than vertically. The Z-5500 comes with standard speaker cable for all five speakers in 4.5m lengths for the two front speakers and centre, and two 7.5m lengths for the rear speakers. The cables all connect to the sizeable and weighty subwoofer unit, as does the control box into which you plug the outputs from your sound generating devices.

We've tested the speakers with several movies now (Constantine, Kronk's New Groove and The Fifth Element) and speech was clear (apart from one sequence in Constantine we had trouble hearing in the cinema as well indicating a deeper-seated problem than just with this sound system), the surround was excellent and the bass was certainly rumbly enough. For playing music through iTunes (via an AirPort Express connection) was okay but seemed a bit thin until I swapped the effects mode on the amp to "Stereo x2", which duplicated the front speakers with the rear speakers. The Wii also outputs sound through the amp now and Sonic Unleashed (the only game I've tried so far) sounded great.

All is not perfect with the system. I would like it if the speakers didn't have their bases attached - the centre speaker is quite obtrusive in front of our TV. The 1-3 speaker switch isn't very well explained until you actually look into the manual, making the quick install sheet less useful, but the biggest problem for me is that considering Logitech also make a universal remote in the Harmony, the commands for the amp aren't very good. The effects switch between DD, dts, Stereo and Stereo x2 doesn't have discrete commands, but rather a simple toggle to switch between them meaning that you need to keep pressing that Effects button until your desired mode comes up, rather than simply hitting "dts" or Stereo x2 for instance. Considering the lack of feedback possible because the remote is purely a sending device, it seems daft to actually make it harder to know what Effects mode you are currently in.

Even with this black mark, the Logitech Z-5500 is an outstanding system. It may have been conceived purely for a rich kids' PC but it works for my needs as an AV amp admirably. 4/5

24 March 2009

HTPC

Pondering making a Home Theatre PC rather than having umpteen boxes (Sky decoder, Freesat HD decoder, Samsung DVD/HDD recorder) so that we can resell those things. I have a CPU (AMD Athlon X2 BE-2350) and graphics card (NVidia 8500GT) and the motherboard I am currently using (MS-7349) has 7.1 sound and HDMI out. I have an 80GB hard drive no longer in use (I know it's not too big) but the two things I really need are a DVB-S PCI tuner card and some means of making an IRDa remote control. I figure that my Harmony can drive it all with no problem, but I need a receiver. Oh yeah, and a case, which may well have the IRDa on it since it will be one designed to be an HTPC?

I'm thinking of going Linux with MythTV as the PVR, but I need more info, particularly on what tuner card to get and how to do the IR stuff...

Update: It seems that Logitech do a mighty fine set of THX-approved 5.1 speakers (ignore the price, I can get them for roughly half the amount Logitech sell them for on their own shop). I would like to get these anyway, regardless of setting up the PVR.

Update 2: Got the Logitech sound system and very good it is too. In my researches, I've found I need a Hauppauge Nova-SE2 DVB-S2 card to receive the satellite signal and record it and mythbuntu is looking good as an all-in-one Linux solution. It's unlikely that my AMD Athlon X2 BE-2350 is sufficient to drive a HD signal unfortunately, so the price for this box is going up. Right now, Hauppage card: 100€, CPU: 70€, memory: 40€, hard drive: 50€, case: 60€, new mobo for main computer 120€, IR stuff?

17 March 2009

Concatenating files


Had a problem in Thunderbird recently. For whatever reason, my wife lost all the mails in a specific folder. Thanks to our WD World Edition, everything is backed up, so I closed down Thunderbird and restored an older file, that I thought was the right one: afb-movie.msf. Folk who know Thunderbird are going to be screaming that a folder in Thunderbird is *two* files, not one, so although all the titles were back in her folder, the actual mails weren't. Anyway, I went back to the Restore and found a 74 MB file called afb-movie as well as the 100 KB or so afb-movie.msf. However, there were also new mails, that were there so I needed to join the two mailbox files together. Now the files are just text files, so I could have loaded the 74 MB into my text editor and pasted the new one at the end, but it probably would have taken a while, so instead I used a DOS command like so:

for %f in (*.log) do type "%f" >> aggregate.txt
I changed the (*.log) to (afb-movie*) to get the afb-movie2 and afb-movie2.bak files and join them together into a single file called afb-movie and changed aggregate.txt to afb-movie.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy. (when you Google "concatenate text files Vista" and find this website: http://www.howtogeek.com/howto/keyboard-ninja/keyboard-ninja-concatenate-multiple-text-files-in-windows/)

13 March 2009

Review: Philips 37PFL5603H 94 cm/37" LCD TV



Remember how I said I'd review the TV once we had it all set up? Well here we go.

Looks
This television looks fantastic. Its monolithic black construction might appear huge if not palliated by the fact that because it's so thin it doesn't seem to take up much space. The gloss black finish does mean it attracts dust like students are attracted to the Glastonbury festival though, so an anti-static cleaner is a must (or a Filipino maid on hand). Although we use our universal remote control (a Logitech Harmony 525), the remote supplied with the TV is a very no-nonsense understated black job.

I/O
This TV comes with three HDMI ports (two on the back with space for another, and one on the side), two SCART sockets, component and composite (on the side). The TV is a full HD set at 1920 x 1080p and has a built-in DVB HD tuner meaning that we get HD French TV. It also has a USB port on the side that you can put pictures, music and firmware upgrades on.

Performance
The first thing to do when you get the set is to turn off all the "intelligent" colour and brightness settings. They make the picture just too vivid, too saturated. Other than that picture quality is good, even on SD material and a good DVD really shines. The HD signal is something else entirely and it is amazing to see. Because our TV gets DVB, the French version of which is TNT, it means that some programmes, notably films, have multiple soundtracks, much like DVDs, so we can actually watch films that would normally be dubbed into French in their original English on French TV. Channel changes, particularly between HD channels feel very slow.

Conclusion
We bought this TV and then found that there was an offer in another shop that basically got the 42" version of the same TV for a little less than this cost, but it had only SD TNT and 42" would really be too big for our lounge I feel. So I am pretty happy with this set. It's still early days to be able to see how well it performs over an extended period and we haven't really explored all its features yet. It's our first HD set, so we might be overly amazed. An HD signal is great, but DVD brought over improvements than just resolution over VHS, so I'm still expecting to see something else - the fact that digital TV can have more language tracks and so on means that you do get additional features, but these are related to digital TV, not HD.

We are getting a Freesat HD box in the post shortly so I will update this review once we have that. 4/5

12 March 2009

PortableApps



I was a fan of the U3 portable app standard. I had an Emtec USB key that had it and it worked well. Unfortunately that key is nearly dead now, so I got a new one of the same type expecting the U3 launcher to still be on there. The key I got is pictured to the left, and as you can see it's an 8 Gig device (my previous one was 2GB) and cost about 25€.

The new key comes with a portable app launcher called Em-Desk and the drive is just one device (the previous USB key was seen as two devices by Windows, one a CD so that the U3 app could be in a protected space).

Unfortunately, Em-Desk is pants. You don't seem to be able to add new programs to it and it's pretty ugly. I used U3 for two things above all - running Directory Opus on machines that didn't have it, and running password keeper Keepass. Neither of those could be easily added to Em-Desk, so I went looking for an alternative. I found PortableApps pretty quickly and the versions of it with more than just the app come with Keepass. Directory Opus has drivers specifically for U3, but having a portable version is very easy with PortableApps too, just use the Backup and Restore... function in your Dopus Settings menu and choose "Export to USB Flash Drive". Once you've copied your installation there (and everything comes across from your 'normal' DOpus installation) you just need to move the DOpus.exe file and DOPUS directory into the PortableApps dir on the USB key (you do end up getting three Opus icons in your PortableApps list as shown here, but you only need run the first one in the list).

The key seems pretty fast reading and writing and it's nice that you only have one icon for it now (no fake CD) and the form factor is great. I am disturbed that the red LED stays on all the time the key is inserted in the machine now, but other than that, highly recommended just get rid of Em-Desk and get the open source PortableApps instead from http://portableapps.com/ Needless to say this is a Windows-only thing.

10 March 2009

New TV



Finally we got ourselves a new TV. We're sticking with Philips since our old set has done us proud for ten years. It's a 37" 1080p device catchily titled the Philips 37PFL5603H. I've downloaded the current firmware upgrade (bizarre, eh? How times change that we can upgrade our tellies!). The only fly in the ointment is that our local Intermarché is proposing a similar Philips 42" set for the same money and with a bunch back on our fidelity card. However, two strikes against it. 1, 42" is really too big for the distance we're playing with and 2, it doesn't have an HD tuner for the French equivalent of Freeview - TNT. I think I'm happy with this set. It's purty and there's an actual power switch to reduce the standby consumption of electricity to, well, 0w. Plus there's a chance I won't even need to reprogram the remote since it's a successor to the Philips TV we already have, and so the remote commands are likely to be similar enough.

I shall review it once it's here tomorrow night.

Yay! Greasemonkey's back


I've been without the invaluable Greasemonkey for about three weeks and have finally had time to sit down and work through it methodically. All the solutions proposed to create new profiles etc. did not work for me. The only thing that did in the end was remove extensions one by one, restarting each time and adding Greasemonkey and restarting again to see if it got installed. I removed extensions in ascending order of importance, starting with Greasemonkey collections from Lifehacker since obviously they couldn't be used without Greasemonkey in the first place. I removed; restarted; added Greasemonkey; restarted about five times in total, each time making a note of what extension I removed. The fifth one removed was Distrust, an extension for secure browsing, and that did it. Greasemonkey was installed. I reinstalled the extensions I had removed and all still works well.

5 March 2009

Watchmen


Okay, is the film any good? Well, the delay and the false starts have certainly been long and many so people's expectations of Zack Snyder might be too high to live up to. Certainly, the boy dun good wiv 300 (and there's a nice nod to it in the first 10 mins or so of Watchmen). I will give you my impressions, there may be spoilers involved so I shall ROT13 them so they aren't immediately legible. ROT13 is easy enough to decrypt by hand and there are many, many websites (or even Thunderbird extensions) devoted to the task too should you wish to read them.

Okay, first the non-spoilers. The film is okay. The characters are quite well-drawn; Rorschach's mask is splendid; Archie is well-realised and Bubastis is lovely. The CG is for the most part quite invisible and yet this is not the masterwork we all want it to be. The fights are too frequent and go on too long - imagine if half of three of the twelve issues was devoted to fight sequences? Sometimes, the words feel forced, as though the actors are unnaturally trying to repeat verbatim what is said in the comic and don't feel comfortable doing it.

There are a couple of my favourite bits missing: Znaunggna genafsre, Ebefpunpu trggvat uvf znfx, naq zbfg vzcbegnagyl gur snpg gung na nyvra vainfvba erhavgrf uhznavgl.

Jon Osterman deserves a paragraph to himself. His creation is beautifully done, although I think they make him look too melancholic, not distant enough. He works well at all scales and unlike in the original comic book his knob is on full display! :D There's no explanation of why he has the hydrogen symbol, nor how he reduces his costume, but there are several shot-perfect sequences, such as him getting himself dressed for the TV interview and his first large-scale appearance when Rorschach comes to visit.

Overall, if you are not expecting any more from this than other filmed Alan Moore works (with the possible exception of From Hell, which I never read), it will be fine. If you don't know Watchmen at all it will be fine. If you deeply love the original story it will be okay and
you'll be relieved that it didn't come out worse. I'm glad I've seen it, the DVD with all the extra stuff, like Tales of the Black Freighter, will be a must-buy, and I'll give it 3/5 overall.

21 February 2009

Do computers dream of Electric Sheep?


This is not really news to anyone that's visited our pad or anything, but I've been using an open source screensaver called Electric Sheep by Scott Draves for about four years now. It recently got a version bump to v2b11 and now works better with Vista than it did before. The thing that's special about it is that it uses spare CPU cycles to create an ever-changing semi-fractal display that's beautiful and unique. If you like the way a sheep (as the displays are called) is turning out you can hit the up arrow while the saver is running and the evolution of the display will follow the sheep. If you hit the down arrow that specific sheep will not contribute its "genes" to future sheep. This is also a collaborative effort, so others are doing the same and you can also create your own sheep manually.

Go get Electricsheep for yourself and have a look. Be warned, downloading the first sheep can take a while but after that you will have a unique combination of sheep in your screensaver...

19 February 2009

Replacing hard drives



Last time I changed over hard drives for my machine I did it badly and ended up having to reinstall Windows and all my software, which took a while :(

This time I used a piece of software called HDClone by Miray. It comes with an ISO image you can burn to a bootable CD then it does a bit by bit copy of the old drive to the new one. If the new one is bigger it automatically increases the size of the partition (the last if you have more than one on the drive). There is a completely free edition that I used and it works fine. If you want to do more complex operations like partition <> drive then you'll be wanting the Basic version for 20€ (which also copies much faster meaning that the operation I had to do should take four instead of six hours. If you have a RAID then you need to get the 40€ standard version, which seems less of a bargain.

Anyway, this free version worked perfectly...

9 February 2009

Senseo makes a good latte shocker!
















The Senseo's coffee is a little weak. It just doesn't feel like a good coffee, no matter what brand of capsules you use, especially when compared to an industrial machine. However, recently Philips introduced an Espresso "saucer" for the machine, with espresso capsules. The coffee made from them is a little better since it's the same amount of coffee, but less water - an espresso measure is only about half a standard measure. If you just use the bog-standard Corsé dosettes, with this saucer and with about two-thirds of a mug of milk heated in the microwave, you can make a very acceptable latte.