Friday, November 10, 2006

Metal Gear Ac!d 2

Sometimes, something comes along that is so left field, it leaves you slack jawed in amazement.

Step forward Metal Gear Ac!d 2 on the PSP. This neat little strategy game involves the usual Metal Gear paraphernalia such as guards, robot guards, security cams, guns, more guns, and of course ration packs. Not to mention the gravitationally challenged breasts...

The action takes place in a turn-based environment following rules I've yet to get my head around. You collect cards, you see. Cards for guns, for special moves, for attacks and defense, and of course for ration packs. The strategy is in choosing the right card at the right time, from the ones randomly dealt out to you. If it all sounds terribly boring, it's not. It's quite a challenge to get out of a typical MGS tight spot using limited move and weapon cards.

The graphics are great, having a cool not-quite cell shaded look using nice cartoon style characters fully rendered in 3D. I'm not trying to provided a review of the game here. Gamespot has a decent review if that's what you're after.

So, what's so left field then? Could it be the fact you can play the game in true, stereoscopic 3D? Nope. Although using the supplied SolidView (read: cardboard tube with lenses), the graphics engine generating 2 slightly offset images (thus allowing you to see the action in 3D) is a neat trick, it's hardly 'out there'.

No. What had me falling off my chair was the SolidTheatre, a kind of bonus - extra, if you will. Here, you switch to 3D mode and you play the first 'clip'. It's a nice pre-rendered sequence featuring Snake, a plane and some other bloke, complete with wooden translate-o-script in caption form.

Of course, you can't read the captions because of the lenses and the fact it's 3D and cool and so forth. Anyway, scroll to the next clip... You want more Snake? More grim faced, bandana gun toting nonsense? How about instead a cute piece of Japanese totty toying with a real gun. I kid you not. 3D video footage of some Far Eastern lady playing with an automatic pistol. WTF?

This I was not expecting.

But a pleasant surprise. I'm not complaining. Do you see me complaining? In fact, after completing a level, the first thing you do is check (brandishing cardboard tube) to see if any more por, er, clips have been unlocked. And then feeling slightly crestfallen when another pre-rendered action sequence featuring Snake et al pops up.

But that's the great thing about this game - they've left in all the crazy Japanese stuff that might otherwise be excised for a typical US/Euro release and it's all the better for it. Despite the po-facedness of the game itself (actually some of the dialogue is quite funny, especially when characters start to swear), these clips show the developers to be the krayzee chaps we all knew they were.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Lego Mobile Crane

I discovered a new acronym the other day - AFOL. No, not ROFL, AFOL. It's for Adult Fan Of Lego. It sounds a bit seedy. Like it might have something to do with porn. Lego Porn, eh? Could be painful. Ever stepped on a lego brick with your bare feet? Now, that is bloody painful.

But let's get a few things straight here. It's not any old Lego. Just the techy geeky stuff. Lego Technic, for example. And Star Wars Lego - an inspired combination of cult toy and cult movie fanchise. Who can resist the little Lego Darth Vader? He's the evil overlord of his little blocky empire. Did you know you can get a pretty darn big Lego Star Destroyer?

But Harry Potter Lego? One franchise too many if you ask me.

Anyhoo, back to the por, er, technical stuff. Today I'm looking at my Lego Mobile Crane. I should add here that I have a deep fascination with real mobile cranes, the yellow things that thunder up the motorway. The more wheels the better. Ever wondered what puts up a tower crane? That's right, a mind-buggeringly big mobile crane.

So when I clapped eyes on the Lego equivalent, I was reduced to a gibbering wreck. And rightly so, for this is perhaps the bestest Lego kit ever.

Start with the simple stuff, like steering. This has six-wheel steering. The fixed wheels are coupled to the six cylinder engine via a proper differential. The really clever parts are the free-wheeling gears that allow an axle to be used for two functions. Due to the limited space inside the chassis, the two axles running fore and aft provide steering, engine movement and stabiliser deployment.

The chassis itself is constructed from fully cross-braced beams, using many, many little black technic pins. The chassis is very strong as a result. On top of this sits the boom turret. Sadly, although it has gear-teeth, the turret is free-moving and positioned manually.

The boom is erected, oo-er, by means of Lego's pneumatic system. The two pistons take some pumping to get the boom aloft, and once fully erect - ok bear with me - I'm trying to think of another word for erect...... hmm... blast... erect it is. Once fully erect, the boom has trouble staying up as the little pneumatic system strains against the weight. So, all show then for the business end of this crane.

The battery box is cunningly disguised as the counterweight, and the motor provides power for the boom and the hook. The three section boom satisfyingly glides out in one motion via tooth and worm gear, while the hook rises and drops as expected on it's thread. The hook was the last component to be fitted. It came as a complete surprise, after three days of assembling a plastic model, to find the hook made of metal.
With the extra weight, it hangs nice and straight. Inside the turret, a lever activated gear switches between boom extend and hook deploy modes.

Little technical touches impress. Like the way the stabilisers lock into position. That the pulley at the end of the boom is pivoted. That the six wheel steering ratio is more acute on the outer set of wheels. Just like the real thing.

Overall, if you're a fan of Lego Technic, or you were a fan, this is an ideal excuse for dad to introduce little Timmy to the world of differentials and worm gears. Hat's off to Lego for a stunning kit.

Friday, September 15, 2006

IPEVO free-1 Skype phone review

Ever tried explaining Skype to your dad? It's like trying to explain it to Alexander Graham Bell himself.

My initial experience with Skype was patchy. This was entirely down to the hardware i.e. not having a mic/headset combo at either end and relying on the iMac and iBook's inbuilt mic and speakers. Feedback ahoy!

Anyway, I ordered the Ipevo free-1 Skype handset as it looked the part and was allegedly Mac compatible.

Out of the box, the Ipevo is a lot smaller than you are led to believe from pictures on the net. This is not a bad thing - the handset is well made if a little lightweight. Oh and it's NOT made from glossy Mac material as the pictures suggest - it's kind of satin textured plastic - all in all quite pleasing, if not totally Mac-like.

The strange shape of the mouthpiece is just that - strange. It doesn't do anything other than make a design statement. Which is OK in my book. The little number buttons are clear shiny domes with both numbers and letters printed on them. The keypad does not light up like a mobile phone - a shame really, but then this is a 20 quid handset.

Along with the number buttons, there are the usual make and break call buttons, a dedicated Skype button, a 'Skypeout' button (puts the '+' sign in for you) and a list button that brings up your Skype contacts list. The green toggle between the make/break navigates up and down any Skype list you happen to be looking at. There are also three Playstationesque function keys. These can be assigned functions like redial, change ringtone (yes, there are even ringtones), hold and change status. Finally, on the side of the handset, there are volume buttons and a mute button. It's pretty complete button-wise. The more buttons the merrier, I say.

One issue that other reviewers have noted, is that the Mac 'driver' exists as a discrete application that has to be run in conjunction with Skype for the handset to work. This isn't too bad - it just means you need to put it in your startup items if you expect the phone to work. The developers need to make it a Prefs item for more seamless integration.

Using Skype, as many will attest, is NOT like using two cans and some string. This technology works rather well. Pressing any button on the phone pulls Skype to the front - you need to press the Skype button if Skype itself is not running. You can either navigate using the handset or mouse, or key in a phone number before pressing call. It all works as expected. Like a phone, unsurprisingly.

Receiving calls again is boringly like receiving calls on a regular phone. The call quality is on a par with that of a mobile phone, which is to say, pretty good.

I tried the handset on my USB 1.1 iBook and it worked perfectly.

Overall I'm impressed not only with the little Ipevo handset, but with Skype in general. It's still cheaper for me to make off-peak calls using my inclusive minutes on my mobile, but for long distance, Skype to Skype calls, it's a real alternative to international call charges.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

iMac, reborn..., like, without all the stuff we lost 'cause of the harddrive failure. Oh well... back to square one.

As a side note, Apple have missed a trick not putting a simple handle in the top of the iMac, like days of old.

The 20" iMac is rather difficult to manhandle out of a car and into one's study. It's heavy. It's got sharp edges. It hurts your fingers after the first 50 yards. It should have a handle.

The iMac DVSE we have has a handle and it's arguably heavier and more awkward to manhandle, but at least it does have a handle. Sorry, but I couldn't get the word 'handle' into that last sentence again. Oh here goes... The iMac DVSE we have has a handle and it's arguably heavier and more awkward to manhandle, but at least it does have a handle, and Apple should get a handle on this. Heh.

BTW the mac is running fine after about 2 days of downloading to get all the apps back the way they were... now to dig out my firewire drive and do that flippin' backup!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

iMac dead...

Ok, so our new(ish) iMac G5 packed in yesterday. It was after some serious iMovie/iDVD action and we went to put it to sleep for the night and lo and behold it was locked up. A quick power cycle revealed the dreaded flashing folder/questionmark. Oh dear.

Half an hour later it was clear that the HD was not spinning up... basically a dead drive.

Now, I realise this is not entirely Apple's fault, but it is a little frustrating to have a 10 month old computer die in such a fashion. My TiVo is nearly 4 years old and runs 24/7 and it's fine. Could it be the continual sleep/start cycle the Mac was subjected to daily that killed the drive? I don't know.

You may ask, did I do any backups? Ahahahahahahah.... erm, yes, actually... but only of the main iPhoto folder... the rest is gone. Most of my iTunes downloads are replicated on the iBook... yeah, most... and all the video footage is still on the original tapes, so that at least can be recovered.

As a long time computer user I'm kind of resigned to the fact that the machines aren't as reliable as we'd like. Yes, backup often, but where 100's of GBs are concerned, that becomes impractical unless you're prepared to fork out for a tape drive or many hours and many DVD's (or a backup HD for that matter).

Anyway, lesson (if there was one) learnt.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Taking the strain...

Thanks to Islamic jihad and the fact that easyJet have cancelled all London to Glasgow flights, I'm traveling by train today. Actually, I'm rather enjoying it. Not having to submit my traveling gadgets to airline baggage handlers is something of a relief. And because I always travel with a portable game system and my lappy (and a PDA and an iPod) I'm not short of stuff to do. Quite liberating actually.

We're on the final leg of the 5 hour journey, Carlisle to Glasgow - I have 1 hour 20 mins left of battery on the iBook, so felt it was time to break it out and do some serious blog work. Five hours might seem a lot, but it's really not much more than the total door-to-door time on the plane, plus there is much more to occupy your time with so it's a win-win situation as far as I can see.

The sad thing is that from now on, in the UK, the stringent security requirements will mean no gadgets on any domestic flights. In reality this isn't a problem, because there is only a window of about 30 minutes where one can actually use a gadget mid-flight. That half-hour can equally be spent digesting the Times, or submitting to that newspaper's fiendish Soduku. and if I was being honest, I'd say that I rarely break out the Nintendo or iPod just for that trip.

So the future of air travel (from the UK at least) looks bleak. I can't imagine a long haul with nothing but in-flight movies to keep my brain occupied. I genuinely feel sorry for those with children. As someone about to become a father, I sympathise.

Oh! One thing slightly gadgety I might mention is the current mode of transport. I'm on a Virgin Pendolino train. This is a train where the individual carriages (or cars) tilt when the train hits a bend. It's quite clever - you don't notice it happening unless you watch the horizon and see the thing doing the tilt. It makes the trip more comfortable and alcoholic beverages less likely to end up in your lap. Actually, alcoholic beverages don't spend long enough in the glass to get spilt, but you get the idea.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Bud Lite

Sometimes, despite, ooh, minutes of research, a gadget purchase can go awry. Particularly if your gut instinct is to buy as soon as you clap eyes on the product in question.

So it came to pass a few weeks ago, that I parted with good money and purchased a new pair of earbuds.
Now, I realise than those in the know (ie those who have either a) puchased the same items, or b) have tried their mates, or c) just know better than to trust a few online reviews let alone comments on a forum) will no doubt guffaw as soon as I mention the offending items.

Yes folks, I bought a pair of Koss Sparkplugs.

I was attracted by the 'sound insulating' design, the prospect of deep bass and they're made by Koss, whose Portapro headphones seem to get good reviews.

The sound insulation on these earbuds is achieved by the use of soft foam; the idea being that you squish the foam down, then shove it in your lug hole letting the foam expand in your ear canal and thus providing that sound insulation.

As a concept, this is fine by me - I regularly wear foam earplugs to mask ambient noise in hotel rooms so the notion of earbuds made of the same material was quite appealing.

Of course, a foam earplug has almost no weight to it, whereas the Sparkplug has the weight of the earbud, plus the cord, both conspiring to yank the bud out of your ear at the slightest provocation.

Ok, so once you've spent the best part of 5 minutes trying to get the earbuds to actually stay in, what do they sound like?

Imagine for a moment, dear reader, you are part of the Mafia, and you did wrong. You did wrong so badly that the Don, well, he's really pissed off. No horse head in the bed for you, sonny, No. Not even concrete overshoes and a visit to the Thames is good enough. Instead of your feet, they put your head in the cement and go read a book while it sets. After that, they then locate a motorway flyover under construction. They put your now block shaped head into the foundation and pour the remainder of the support. Weeks later, after the concrete has cured, the road has opened and thousands of cars, trucks, buses etc rumble over your support, you begin to appreciate how the Koss Sparkplugs actually sound.

Muddy doesn't begin to describe it. They sound awful. Oh yes the bass is there all right. To the exclusion of every other type of sound. Treble? It's on a Club 18-30 holiday. Midrange? Gone potholing. Yup, bass came round and invited his relatives. They turned the bass up to 11 on this one. Strange, because customer reviews on Amazon swing from 'Too much Bass' to 'OK' to 'To much treble'... eh, wot? Just put the spliff down, find a decent sound source and listen again. They're crap. End of.

I feel cleansed. I breathe easy. But lo! The Apple Store (Regent St.) are stocking a new range of earbuds by Sennheiser! They can't be worse than the Koss Crapplugs can they? Can they?? More soon!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Game over, man!

Apologies for not posting for a while. What with summer getting in the way and all I haven’t had much inclination to sit down and write for a while.

Anyway, today I thought I’d put down some thoughts on the hoary Nintendo DS vs Sony PSP debate.

I’ve been playing both systems for a while, well since this encounter at least. If you’re a PSP fan, don’t let the cheap look and feel of the DS fool you, especially since the DS Lite is now widely available.

Think of it like this: Nintendo started with the original Gameboy, a kind of handheld gaming gunpowder. They then slowly refined the product until the DS Lite came along. Portable Semtex. Sony, on the other hand introduced the PSP - their Atom Bomb.

I like the PSP. It’s got that screen, great build quality, uses basically MiniDisc as storage (I was always a fan of MiniDisc until the iPod came along), wireless & USB communications and a spectrum of media options. Ok, so it uses Sony’s expensive flash storage and UMD movies are overpriced and many games are ports of regular console games blah blah blah, but it defines what can be done with consumer
electronics in the early 21st century. What it lacks too, is that sense of innovation - there's nothing in there that it's big cousin doesn't do. Maybe that's ok for a portable gaming system, I don't know.

The DS on the other hand is somewhat underwhelming. At first. Yes, it’s much cheaper than the PSP. Yes it’s well made to a degree. (The silver paint on mine is wearing off already!) And yes the original’s screen(s) left a lot to be desired.

Where the PSP is basically a (large) pocket Playstation 1.5, the DS takes the success of the earlier Nintendo systems (it’s the games, dummy!) and throws in the dual screen (I could live without) and the touch screen.

The touch screen basically tramples over any previous analogue control system on any platform bar the mouse. It provides super sensitive, accurate control over the subject whether it’s you’re little character in Animal Crossing, or you’re having a balls out wireless deathmatch in Metroid.

The DS might only be Semtex, but it can deploy a stealth torpedo in the shape of well integrated WiFi. The multiplayer aspect of some games is extremely well handled. With Metroid, you can have a 4 player deathmatch with complete strangers over the internet in an airport lounge using wireless. It’s a slick, lag-free experience. Couple that with noise cancelling headphones and you’re heading for a missed flight scenario. It’s that good.

Switching back to the PSP can be refreshing however. The screen alone a reminder why you’re glad to be back. Booting up Wipeout and getting into the ‘zone’ is what the Playstation was all about and can still be achieved on the PSP with the right software.

If can forgive the shortcomings of each system, they can both take a place in your gaming life.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Night watch, man

The humble watch. Possibly the only piece of body adornment that can be gadgetized. That and the bluetooth headset. And the Oakley Thump. Oh, and these Eyetrek things... But of course, dear reader, these are gadgets in their own right. The watch - as a gadget - descends from a line of timepieces dating back to... er, a very long time ago indeed.

In fact, it took until the discovery of Japan in the early 1900s for full watch gadgetization to happen, namely by a small company called Casio. They built the first wrist-clock (as they were known then) from bamboo and cat-gut.

Before long, they had their first (and sadly, last) wrist mp3 player. And, possibly before that, the wrist GPS system.

Watch fanciers around the world yearned for the simpler days - the days where your watch would enigmatically hide the time from you and you needed to press a button to get your chronological fix.

I’m talking, quite rightly, about the humble LED watch. But this is 2006, you cry! Do not fear, for this is no mere seven segment LED watch, but a LED matrix watch! Oh yes. Just like those seen in the back window of police cars. Except instead of ‘Stop’, it tells the time. And date.

This watch is branded Ted Baker, the ludicrously expensive high street fashion emporium.

Thankfully, the watch is priced just a little higher than one of their shirts which makes it slightly affordable.

Under the skin, it’s just a Taiwanese manufactured quartz watch - it’s available from Tokyoflash under the Cyber Punk brand. But of course.

The large, square, deep ruby coloured face is impossibly retro but classy at the same time. Who cares if it takes two hands to tell the time?

Finished with a brushed stainless steel bezel and soft, wide leather strap, it’s firmly a fashion watch which, like your girlfriend, deserves the occasional night out.

Press the button and the 18x5 matrix sweeps the time into view. Another press and the date is shown. It’s a class act and is sure to get you noticed in the hippest of joints, daddy-o.

Mine’s a bit flakey and I can only think that this must be because it takes a fair amount of juice (by watch standards) to light all the LEDs, and when the battery is low it basically crashes due to low current. Either that or it’s faulty.

So, there you have it. Watches can be trendy.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


You remember those old Tex Avery cartoons, the ones where if a character did something stupid he'd turn into a donkey? Or at least what I thought was a donkey when I was six. Yup, a Jackass, as I later found out.

Well, that was me last week. A jackass standing on Oxford Street, London, after walking from a local branch of a chain of videogame retailers, appropriately called Game. (Just as well Selfridges is a department store - if they only sold hats I'd have every right to report them to trading standards.)

You see, the other day I had one of those urges to spend some money. On myself. A gadget splurge, so to speak. So, armed with some plastic, I went out to purchase a Game Boy micro.

The Game Boy doesn't need much research: I've had a long acquaintance with the GB ever since it's first inception. From the original (Tetris - yay!), to the GB Color (Harvest Moon, sigh), to the Advance (Advance Wars, word), I've built up a fair size catalogue of great and not-so-great games. With this in mind, and aware of the GBm's small-but-perfect screen, I walked into Game to see what deals they had on. They always have deals on. Like the soon-to-depart-but-inevitably-replaced-by-identical-shop Dixons, you can never buy the thing you want, on it's own. It always has to be bundled with something, supposedly giving you better 'value', even though you end up spending more. (No, I absolutely do not need an extended warranty! It's a Scart lead! What can possibly go wrong with a Scart lead??)

Sure enough, they had the Micro (in pink or silver only.. uhh yeah make mine a pink 'un - it'll go with this) bundled with three games, all for 70 quid. Or was it 60? Anyhoo, I thought, great, that's the one for me - all I need to do is track down a copy of Advance Wars 2 and life would be complete.

Of course, AW2 isn't easily available - I'd probably have to get it on-line. Not to worry, I'd be content with the original AW on the tiny screen.

However, the staff at Game had other ideas. You see, (a helpful oik* pointed out) the total cost of the GBm (with 3 free games) plus the outlay for AW2 would have been the same (99 GBP) as the Nintendo DS plus one (free) game. That free game was Animal Crossing**... the sales chappie offered to swap it for Advance Wars DS (after speaking to his 'manager') and so the sale was complete. I get the latest portable Nintendo, with the latest iteration of the game of my choice, for pretty much the same outlay as the GBm plus said game. Got all that?

And so it came to pass, I walked out with a DS plus game plus 'body armour', an immediately useless plastic housing to 'protect' the DS (whilst simultaneously increasing it's already breezeblock-like dimensions) What am I? 12?

A good deal, so why do I feel like taking people on a ride along Blackpool Pleasure Beach?

Well, the thing is, I already tote around a PSP and half a dozen UMDs. The DS is not exactly the Kate Moss of the handheld gaming world either. More a Nigella Lawson, really. Mmm... curvy... So for full-spectrum portable gaming, I have to lug around two fat-arsed handhelds. And their chargers.

My heart was set on a GBm because of it's diminutive mobile phone dimensions, not to mention the cracking screen, plus (I think) it's ability to charge from USB.

It's been a few days now. I still have the option of taking back the DS and swapping it for a Micro... but I'm starting to warm to the DS. I'm intrigued by it's wireless gameplay which, by all accounts, seems to be better able to work directly with the internet to offer worldwide multigaming. However, I may end up getting the Micro, and putting the DS up on eBay. Watch this space.

*Oik is perhaps a little unfair. He was at least 30.

**I bought Animal Crossing a few days later: stay tuned for an update!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Welcome to Luton Blairport

Ok, so now I'm officially pissed off.

I'm flying up to Glasgow from Luton airport and discovered the office have miss-booked my flight - I should have been here, yup, yesterday.

Now, amongst all the gadgets I lug around with me, one of them is not a time machine. Still, I'm now on a later flight so will hopefully get home tonight at some point.

To kill some of that aforementioned time, I thought I'd watch a DVD on my trusty iBook. Knowing that the battery was nearly done, I found a seat conveniently positioned near a pillar-mounted AC outlet. You can see what's coming, can't you?

That's right, nary a minute had passed before some officious twerp in a high-vis vest came along and asked me to unplug said laptop.

"Why?" I rightly enquired, surveying the Vegas-like illuminations around me.

"Because you might cause a problem and close the airport."

"Couldn't you," I joked, "switch off a few lights, y'know, to make up for the juice I'm using?"

I kid you not - I actually said that.

And, instead of asking WTF? I perhaps should have been backing off slowly.

Anyway he was having none of it, so I duly unplugged the iBook and set about writing this.

Let me get this straight... I can charge my laptop on the express train from Nottingham, but I can't use 0.3 of an amp in a freaking airport?? This is the 21st century, last time I checked. Sorry, wait, this is 21st century Britain. My mistake.

This recently modernised and otherwise OK air terminal can't provide a few simple outlets for laptops and phones? I feel a complaint coming on, methinks.

I'm using the last of my charge to write this (I haven't moved) and maybe the day-glo Nazi has done me a favour. I'm dead hungry and really should get something to eat.

Hmm. There is a TV crew floating around. Do they not have to charge their batteries??

Perhaps my grievance would make good television? Perhaps I might be writing the next installment of this from Guantanamo Bay? With my own shite.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Self Serve

Today I tried Tesco's new self-scan checkout at my local store.

It's a little bit weird... you basically scan in your own stuff, pack the bag yourself, swipe your own card, take the till receipt and leave.

Weird because you can't help think you're doing someone out of a job.

Weird because, well, they pay people to do this and you're standing there like a dummy doing it for them. The bosses at Tesco must be laughing like drains.

Weird, because there is no interaction with a member of staff at any point, so you end up leaving the store feeling like a thief, despite having knowingly paid for the goods. This feeling also applies to pay-at-pump filling stations.

And lastly, weird because you just swipe your card to pay - no pin, signature, DNA sample or retinal scanning required to verify who you are.

Soon, you won't even need to turn up at the store to do your shopping...

What's that, you say? You can already??

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Pen Magic

Yes, yes I know it's a pen. A simple writing implement forgotten in the onslaught of mobile communications. A tool of a bygone age. A remnant of a time when... hey, am I boring you??

Ok, the pen isn't quite obsolete yet, especially this one. We've seen gadget pens before. Pens that had watches in them. Pens with radios. Pens with video cameras. This particular pen doesn't fall quite into that strata of geekness, but it's pretty cool nonetheless.

Bought in Muji, this is a well made aluminium pen with three functions: Black ball pen, red ball pen and 0.5mm automatic pencil. Despite this, it manages to keep the slim dimentions of a regular pen.

So, another multifunction pen.. ho hum seen it, bought the T-shirt etc... except wait! Hand the pen to some unsuspecting schmuck and feel the inner geek in you glow as you ask them to change it's mode.

You see, the only mechanical parts to the pen are the plunger for pushing out the nib, and a small button that retracts it. The usual nib selectors are missing. How does one change nibs?

Muji stuff doesn't usually come with instructions, and this is no exception. It took me a while to figure out what was happening.

The magic of this pen, and henceforth it's free pass to the gadget hall of fame, is that the mechanism works by gravity.

Hold the pen so that the desired function is facing up, then press the plunger. Lo and behold the nib you want appears. Retract, rotate and try again. Yup, the nib matching the description pops out. Great stuff. The Homer Simpsons among you could lose an afternoon with this thing!

So that's it. A multi-nib pen that uses gravity to pick the nib. Newton would be proud.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Music, cubed

"It's pink!" I exlaimed a bit too loudly as the 12 year old shop assistant returned from the stockroom clutching a small box.
"It's red, sir", said the small boy.
"I think it looks pink."
"We had silver in the 1 gig but they're gone."


Since my gadget lust supersedes my fashion sense, I got a pink one.

Yup, a pink mp3 player. Now, I'm a hardcore iPod fan. What, you may ask, am I doing with a non iPod music player?

The Q-Be ('cube' - geddit?) is otherwise known as the Mobiblu in America. The American model (as far as I'm aware) also has an FM radio and voice recording built in. In true Dixons style, this one doesn't. In any case, it's still quite desirable from a gadget point of view and more so because Dixons (or Currys, the store employing 12 year olds) were selling the 1 gig units for 40 of your British pounds.

Needless to say, I had to get my hands on one.

There are a few pics on this post. Mostly they highlight the diminuitive dimensions of this player vs, well, my first portable CD player (the wondrous Technics SL-XP700) and a first generation iPod, as well as the iPod Shuffle. These players are all basically first generation of their type.

As much as I still love the CD player (it still works - listening to some 80s music right now - Climie Fisher if you must know) it's amazing that a little pink cube offers so much 20 years on.

The Korean manufacturers claim this is in fact red - they do a shocking candy-floss pink one as well but unless I'm colourblind (which I'm not) I'm sticking to my guns and calling this one pink!

Glad I cleared that up, then.

Most Shuffle owners will not admit that not having a screen is ever so slightly inconvenient. Life is Random, after all. No it bloody is not! I don't find myself suddenly driving to work having just climbed in the shower! I don't order another drink at the bar having just got comfy with a nice hot cup of tea and the TiVo remote in my hand! Life is sequential!

Despite it's random nature, I do like the Shuffle. It's robust in the same way a cigarette lighter is, but sometimes I'd like to be the one who chooses what plays next!

Enter the cube. It has a tiny but cute and functional OLED screen to display that vital track information. If you work in heavy industry or are a North Sea fisherman, forget getting this player - you'll need the digits of a Barbie doll to operate the tiny controls. On the right of the display is the main control disc. It operates the same as the Shuffle's, but is about 66% of the size, plus the play/pause button is much smaller. The menus and folders are navigated with this control. It is the only control.

On the opposite face is a menu button, and a hold button. The menu button takes you to the simple menu, and if held in takes you to the file/folder navigation. The little hold button displays the time if pressed once, and toggles the hold function if held in.

The controls aren't terrible, it's just that you look a right twat on the tube apparently fumbling with a little pink cube attached to your ears.

One aspect of the cube I'm impressed with is the sound quality. Now, you might infer that because I'm an iPod user, I wouldn't know sound quality if it came up and kicked me in the head. While it's true I'm no audiophile, I have spent a good few gadget years listening to good and bad sound systems, so I'd like to think I'm in a position to offer a, er, sound judgement.

The cube sounds every bit as good as the Shuffle. It has a selection of six equaliser settings, as well as control over bass and treble for a custom setting. There is also a sound boost function if you want it (slightly) louder.

The pack-in earbuds are surprisingly good - they even fit my ears. While don't think the iPod buds are awful either they hurt my ears after 20 minutes wear... these are better - not bad for pack-ins. Too bad they come in a fixed necklace configuration, forcing you to wear the cube like a pendant. Since I'm not 16, and not a girl either, I'm sticking to my much more macho Sennheiser 250Cs. They are more fiddly what with the battery holder and yards of cable. Gadget heaven.

Note that because of it's proportions (24mm, 0.9something inches, fact fans) it's hard to not have a pocket bulge anywhere on your jeans. It definately doesn't sit well in the change pocket. The Shuffle on the other hand, readily gets lost in my pockets, only to turn up days later in the bottom of a sock. Don't ask.

A novel aspect of the cube is in the computer interface. The audio port (headphone socket in street parlance) doubles as a dataport, using the supplied, custom, one-off, do-not-lose, USB lead. It charges through this lead too. So don't lose it. Oh and because this is Britain, it's USB 1.1.

The player presents itself on the computer as a mass storage device. Use Windows Explorer to move your mp3s to and from the device.

I'm a Mac user and this presents a particular problem. While the player shows up, and it does let you copy mp3s using the Finder, or dragged from iTunes, it also shows up the 'data fork' files that the Mac OS uses in it's file system. An alien concept to Windows, but the Mac uses secondary, invisible data files to store info about the file, such as what application created it, what app should be opened etc. These little files show up on the player - not the Mac OS, not Windows, only the player.

The player ignores the files (in fact the manual says that the player can be used for data storage a la Shuffle) and goes on to the next mp3, but if you use a Mac, the number of files listed on the player is double that of the number of actual mp3s. It makes navigation a pain and the random play function can sometimes take its time to settle on a file that can actually be played.

Apart from that niggle, this is a great little gadget and at this price, comes highly recommended.

Some discussion (mainly the lack of FM) on this player can be found here.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Fossil Wrist PDA Review

Well folks, please give a big hand to the latest item to gather dust at the bottom of the gadget drawer. Only kidding. For now. I'm actually trying to wear this thing on a daily basis. Have a read of the review and see what you think.

The Wrist-PDA is a gadget which is simultaneously great, and awful, at the same time. It's great because it's a tiny computer. On your wrist. It's awful because it's sometimes hard to operate and goes through it's battery faster than the Duracell Bunny. More on that later.

First, all the good stuff. This watch seems to be a later model and as such bears the Abacus brand. It's still a Fossil watch, however, and as such it is built to a very high standard. It's solidly constructed, but not that tough really, since the screen is touch sensitive and not in any way water resistant. The smart stainless steel bezel is large but is less cumbersome than [say] the Casio Pro-Trek. The watch is fairly thick - dimensionally, heh - but no more than a substantial diver's chronograph IMHO. Sadly, the buttons are plastic when they could easily have been metal, but it still manages to retain the look of a smart timepiece.

Neatly set into the top of the bezel is a frosted IR window. The bezel gives way to a strange resin mock croc hybrid strap. The strap is large and needs to be fastened right at the last notch for my thin, mayfly-like, wrists. Mind you, this is tight, but not quite enough to stop the blood reaching my hand. Any looser and the watch has a tendency to ride down on the wrist and chafe the hand. Not good.

On the wrist the watch feels good - substantial, yes, but really not too bad and I found I forgot about it being there after a while.

On one side, there is a small rubber flap hinged, rather incongruously. This is the USB port and is a rather endearing reminder that it's really a small computer, complete with small port flaps.

I love port flaps. Especially the ones that detach and get lost forever.

The case back is nicely etched with the Abacus logo and more importantly the Palm logo. There is even a tiny USB logo etched near the port, bless.

Lastly, there is the buckle. Usually the least exciting part of any watch, this buckle conceals a tiny stylus for operating the PDA. It slides out and folds open and like the watch itself is finely engineered out of stainless steel and plastic. Too bad it looks like you've just produced a tiny toothpick.

Onto the actual operation of the Wrist PDA. Are there any bionic doctors in the house? Because you'll need the dexterity of a brain surgeon and Colonel Steve Austin's eye to get the best out of this gadget.

You see, the screen is essentially a 160x160 standard monochrome Palm display, replete with standard Palm screen furniture - buttons, navigation, menus and scroll-bars. The photo shows the large, low-res icons - you can make them really small via a preferences screen. They're just so tiny. Picking the tiny scroll-arrow on a moving platform (like a bus) is nigh on impossible.

The good news is that the standard Palm PIM applications are all present in their full functionality. I happily beamed 2 years worth of calendar entries from my Palm T3 in a matter of seconds. The same with my complete contacts list. Everything present and correct and working just like it's bigger version. Apparently, most applications targeted at OS ver 4 can be installed in it's 8Mb of memory.

Like other Palms, much of the basic navigation can be achieved with the exterior buttons. The central control is a two-way toggle that also presses in to select an option. The button below the USB port acts as a 'back' button, which I don't think is standard on regular Palm devices. The two remaining buttons on either side of the toggle act as 'page up' and 'page down' functions.

The obvious difference between the watch and a regular Palm is the lack of the input area. This is usually a screen printed area that responds to you 'writing' characters and numbers. However, like more recent Palms, the screen itself can be written on. Astoundingly, the watch is better at text recognition than the T3. Like the T3 it uses Grafitti 2 but has another tool called Jot to help understand my scrawl. It does a good job and it's surprisingly easy to get text into the device. If you don't mind looking a prat on the train while doing so, that is.

If writing on the screen isn't your thang, you can call up a teeny virtual qwerty keyboard, but book an appointment with an optician before doing so, because you WILL go blind using it.

Ha! I nearly forgot! It's a watch too! It keeps good time [for a computer] and the bonus is it sports several different ways of telling the time from plain digital (using a nice sans-serif font) to analogue and several funky displays in between. There are additional watch faces that can be downloaded, too.

Well, that's all the interesting stuff. Onto the major down side of all this wrist-bound magic. The battery.

Most watches these days offer up to three years or more of use out a single cell. Even the power hungry Pro-trek is still on it's first set of CR2032s. The Wrist-PDA? Well, three days is the norm. I'm not kidding. If this was an iPod, there would be a car battery accessory available. You can't leave it in a drawer for a week without it dying. However, the designers seem to be aware of this shortcoming and have built in some power-saving features but even then getting 5 days would be stretching things.

The up side is that, as long as you sync with the computer regularly, this shouldn't be a problem. It does need a 3-4 hour charge it's Li-Ion cell, so doesn't fall into the grab'n'go category like most gadgets. But then my iPod is usually flat when I go to use it so I'm used to that.

Also, you do get a tiny, multi-standard mains charger, albeit with US pins. The watch seems happy to be charged via USB alone and it works with the USB cable that came with the Sony PSP so not a total disaster if you lose the cable.

In summary, this is a great, super geeky gadget to have. It's a shame the battery requires daily attention, but that is price you pay to have a COMPUTER on your WRIST!

Next week: Creating a Wrist-PDA out of an Apple Newton MessagePad 100. [That's a joke btw!]

See also engadget and of course our old friend, eBay.

A nice review with some good close-up pics of the Fossil version of the watch can be found here.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Naked iPod

Hello folks! Right now I'm in a hotel room in London - my work involves extended periods away from home - so over the next few weeks I'll be reporting on my experiences traveling with the multitude of gadgets that usually accompany me.

For this trip, I finally resurrected my old Gen 1 iPod. As much as I like my Shuffle, I do miss not being able to pick tracks at will. So the Shuffle will have a holiday while big iPod takes over the music duties.

The thing that struck me was that despite being over 4 years old, the iPod was in remarkably good nick. Cosmetically, it's pretty scuffed up, but it doesn't mean it's unusable! The kerfuffle over iPod nano scratches was overblown in my opinion.

If you're thinking 'iPod nano? Scratches??' then I'll assume you've just come out of a long term coma. In that case, welcome! It's 2006 and robots are real!

I think my ol' iPod has weathered well having never seen the luxury of a case, sock or balaclava, but I can appreciate if you've just splashed out on a new nano or video iPod and it starts to get marked early on, you'd be miffed.

The best advice I can offer is to never, ever under any circumstances - threat of forced viewing of Celebrity Big Brother, even - put your iPod in a pocket with keys or loose change. Never. Do it once and your iPod will be scarred for life. Scarred I tell you! Not to mention the mental scarring you receive when, fumbling for your house keys, your fingers touch upon... your precious iPod. Aaarghh! Kill me now! (Readers may have gathered that the author of this piece has undergone such a traumatic experience).

Mind you, not as bad as - having been very careful protecting it's surfaces with a tea-towel - finding a bloody great scratch on the casing of the iBook while undertaking a complicated drive-ectomy! To add insult to injury, it was right across the translucent Apple logo in the lid! I'm still paying the rehab bill!

Ok, it's time for, er, teaser time: I recently took delivery of a Fossil Wrist PDA (a dream gadget) - a full write up will appear here soon so bookmark me already! Meh!

Also coming up: How playing PSP on the Tube can make you vom.

Call back soon for more gadget goodness!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The gift of light

Hello, and a Happy New Year to everybody. If you've stumbled across this from iLounge, then welcome, make youself at home and help yourself to nibbles.

Naturally, Christmas is a great time to receive and give gadgets. In my case, I did mostly the giving - namely an iPod nano to my fiancé. I'm not about to plunge into a review of the nano; there is a great review on iLounge if you're interested. Suffice to say, it's as great as everyone says. Yes, the gloss finish exterior will get marked as time goes by. My philosophy is not to get too paranoid about this - my G1 iPod rates pretty highly on the scuff-o-meter but guess what? It still plays music just fine.

For today however, I'm going to write about a cool little gadget that some may have seen before - the tritium keyring.

"Triti-what?", you cry. It's basically a clear perspex keyring with a phosphorous coated vial of tritium. The low-level radiation (yes, radiation), reacts with the phosphor an causes it to give out light - albeit very faintly. The coolest aspect of this process - the tritium has a half life of 12 years.

Don't get me wrong - this is a low level, fairly useless light source, good for only seeing where you left your keys in the dark. But it has a life span of 10 years! Not only does it sound like something from Star Trek, it has almost the same lifespan as Lt Cmdr Data! Ok maybe not, but certainly longer than any of Kirk's Enterprises! Truly, science fiction - in your pocket.

I have kind of cheated with the photo in that I used a long exposure time in a relatively dark room to try and make the glow show. Well, it worked, but the real thing isn't nearly as bright.

Here is a link to a retail page if you're interested. Also, there seems be some restriction on where these can be obtained - US availability is limited as far as I'm aware, but there is always eBay!