Monday, June 30, 2008

Nuance T9 Nav (beta) review

Nuance's T9 Nav concept is simple yet brilliant that I wonder why no one has seized on it before (ok, there has been but the execution and integration here seems to be better). The plug-in allows you to easily search almost anything on your phone from the standby screen simply by typing in the first few letters using a T9 compatible numerical keypad. It works similarly to the phone app (Smart Dial) on Windows Mobile, except that it isn't limited to contact entries.

Once activated the program will first index the content of your phone. This includes contact details, settings, music, images, bookmarks, applications, calendar entries and keywords. It took about 10 seconds for the application to index my E51, but your mileage may vary depending on how much junk is installed. You can also set the program to auto start-up whenever you boot your device. A simple tutorial is also provided with the installer though the application is so easy to use I did not once refer to it.

Using T9 Nav is child's play. On the home screen (or Active Standby as Nokia calls it), start typing on the keypad as you would normally do. For example keying in 2-7-4-4-4-8-6-6 will type out 'Brighton'. Doing so here list all the entries on my phone that contains the keyword 'Brighton'. In most cases all I had to do is type first couple of letters for it to start sorting out the entries properly. For example typing 7-2-4 allows me to switch to pager profile, check my schedule (calendar), launch the National Rail's website or call Aishwarya Rai . Results become more refined as you press more keys.

Right now T9 Nav is still limited to indexing certain portions of your phone. I do wish that once it is ready to be released Nuance would implement some sort of filter to the end-user, giving us a choice to decide what we want indexed or otherwise. Another wish I do have is for Nuance to give us the ability to include SMS/e-mail entries, similar to Windows Mobile 6's Smart Filter. However despite these limitations, the convenience of T9 Nav has already won me over and I can't recommend this enough to people with compatible mobiles. I can always fall back to the built-in Nokia Search for a more thorough (but much slower) search.

T9 Nav is scheduled to be released soon as a commercial software. The public beta is available for download here (for Series 60 3rd Edition). A similar program Qix by the developers of Decuma is also available.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Grand Union Canal bike ride

We did the Grand Union Canal bike ride today from Watford to Central London (Paddington Arm). Having lived here for quite a number of years, one does tend to takes things for granted - and in this case seeing the city from a different point of view. So we decided to take good advantage of the moderate weather (we cancelled our planned Wimbledon day out) and head out to London today, via the long way round.

Starting at Cassiobury Park, Watford near the M25, we cycled through a number of locations including Rickmansworth by the River Gade (part of the Colne Valley walk), Uxbridge, the Nestle factory (which served the air with a distinctive coffee flavour), Southall, Alperton before crossing over the North Circular then passing Ladbroke Grove before ending at Paddington Basin (where we stopped for a while before heading towards Baker Street to start our way home on the Tube). Sights includes Kensal Green cemetery and Little Venice (nothing fanciful about this tourist destination to be honest, apart from a collection of boats moored together and a bunch of 'buses' aimed at ripping people off). In between we visited a café and a pub for drinks and some food.

It was an interesting day out that gave us an opportunity to experience London in a fairly different way that most simply wouldn't care to including seeing the gradual change from rural to industrial and finally to urban. The ride was fairly easy though at certain sections we were riding just inches from the water edge and we had to be careful not to get wet. Most of the towpaths were gravelled though once we reached Alperton, the majority were paved. The total distance was 51km/32 miles (not including the one extra mile to Baker Street) according to the GPS tracklog.

Maps: Ordnance Survey Explorer 173 & Explorer 172 or Landranger 176

Nokia E51 mini-review

The following is a quick review (more of an observation, but whatever) of the Nokia E51.

The Pretty Stuff

- Very slim, though not quite as slim as the 5310 XpressMusic. It is still a massive improvement over the N80 and HTC Artemis, and is one of the smallest smartphone I've ever used.
- At only 100g, the E51 is lightweight. Despite that it is slightly heavier and more 'solid' than the 5310.
- ThinkPad like toughness. I've already accidentally dropped it twice onto our hard wooden floor. Not a scratch or dent in sight. This is a worthy spiritual successor to the Nokia 6310.
- The built quality is excellent. There is a slight creak on the battery door, but otherwise the use of stainless steel material gives the phone an unusual quality that surpasses even many of Nokia's higher end models like the N95.

The E51's size is hardly any bigger than 'dumb' phones (l-r: E51, 5310 XM, RAZR2 V8, A818)

- Very quick especially in comparison to the Nokia N80 (220 Mhz) and Artemis (200Mhz). The 369Mhz processor is sufficient in processing even the most demanding websites. Switching between applications and navigating the UI for once isn't a chore.
- 44MB available RAM meant that I can leave multiple applications opened without worry. A far cry from the 18MB N80 and 25MB Artemis. I had no problem opening several Java programs and leaving them in the background. Even better the memory leakage that plagued the N80 seems to have fixed.
- Industrial mini USB standard is an improvement over the Pop-Port.
- An ambient sensor similar to the 5310 automatically adjusts the level of brightness. You can also manually adjust the brightness.
- WiFi 802.11b/g, Dual-band HSDPA 3.6Mbps, Quad-band GSM, Bluetooth 2.0 EDR+, IrDA and USB 2.0 meant that you won't have to worry about being left out of the loop. A2DP works with my Sony Bluetooth stereo headset.

Adequate RAM means that you do not have to close multiple applications

- The 2" QVGA screen's clarity is above average in doors, though the contrast and colour saturation suffers when used outdoors. The screen remains easily readable when outdoors thanks to the use of tinted glass.
- Incoming voices are crisp and clear as was the outgoing voice, at least according to the people I spoke to.
- Battery life is excellent. Despite using WiFi, Bluetooth, text and phone calls in moderation throughout the day, the E51's battery bar indicates 80% of power remaining.
- Buttons are well labelled. The standard S60 swirl logo has been replaced by a universally recognised home logo, which should help new users. There are also three buttons dedicated to launching six separate applications/tasks which is helpful.
- microSDHC compatible means that it should work with 32GB cards. Tested with a 4GB card. You will have to remove the battery cover to access the slot, but it isn't a requirement to power down the device.

The Ugly Stuff

- Series 60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1 is still not as powerful as Windows Mobile 6.
- 2.5mm headphone socket. It is an improvement over Pop-port, but who uses 2.5mm headphones anyway?
- The 2Mp camera's performance is better than the 5310 XpressMusic, but noticeably worse than the N80. A camera-less version is also available, mainly to cater to paranoid companies. Read my impression of the E51 for examples of images taken.
- The side buttons are encased in rubber. These are mainly to prevent accidental presses but are pain in the arse to press.
- You can't charge via USB.
- The new firmware is not available on my version yet.
- A stingy 512MB card was included with the sales package, which has a value of £1. You can easily buy authentic 2GB cards for less than £5 these days.
- No built-in GPS. A cheap Bluetooth GPS receiver helps, but you have to wonder what Nokia were thinking...


The E-series has always been the odd one out of Nokia, with it regularly getting the stick from its parent company when it comes to receiving the latest technology. It is a similar situation with the E51. You could tell that the product engineers were working with their hands tied, forced to compromise plenty design features - possibly not to anger their multimedia department (who designs the N-series phones). While Nokia does not show much appreciation towards the E-series in general, the E51's robust design, proper keypad, raw performance and price does give it an edge over some of Nokia's more favoured models.

I found Series 60 Third Edition feature pack one is a massive improvement over the first S60 OS I used (2nd Edition) and while it isn't as powerful as Windows Mobile or the quantity of third party software isn't that impressive (for example Nokia has not released the API to the Active Standby screen), I can safely say that the OS is robust enough to be used as a smartphone. PIM applications is adequate enough for me to finally put PalmOS (of which I was a huge fan half a decade ago) to rest (good riddance). News of Nokia's Symbian Foundation initiative will hopefully allow for more improvements in the underlying Symbian OS.

The E51 is a very desirable smartphone that is capable of appealing to both casual and business customers. There are a couple of annoying decisions that held it from perfection. For example the 2.5mm headphone socket proves that Nokia still holds the age old belief that their target customers are not keen on having fun. The old music player application proves that as much. Still, if you are looking for a slim and stylish Series 60 smartphone with serious pack of power and can excuse the lack of built-in GPS receiver, you can do no wrong with the E51.

The Nokia E51 is available for less than £200 sim-free or free on contracts.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Food review: Zizzi

Tonight was the first time we've been to Zizzi (St. Albans), a chain restaurant owned by the ASK group. The 'Italian' restaurant is modelled similarly to Pizza Express and Carluccio's, in both style and cuisine (though Zizzi serves both pastas and pizzas, as well as traditional meals). Unfortunately Zizzi came no where near displacing the two as my favourite pizza/pasta chain eateries.

We had a selection of house breads for starter which mainly consists of red onion facaccia, Altamura bread and pane Pugliese served with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. This is very similar to the bread tin that Carluccio's serve but noticeably less tasty. For the main course we had spicy Italian sausages served with lentils and lamb shank. The Italian sausages are pretty good with a nice hint of spice, but Zizzi was very stingy in its serving with the sausages (two of them) and lentils taking up less than half the plate served. The lamb shank according to Jenni was average, but the serving was again disappointing. One of our table goers had their stone baked pizza, which she found to be dry. Another had steak - which came out chewy and a chore to eat with, apparently. She quipped that it felt like cheap steak.

Fortunately the desert we had was the high point of the evening - food wise at least. The oven baked Panettone al Forno is a bread and butter pudding laced with raisins and dried oranges. Served with a dollop of cinnamon ice cream, it was tasty and rich. Shame about the rest. At least the service was good, but does it matter if the food is below expectation? Believe me, stick with Pizza Express, Strada or Carluccio's (which after today I think is very generous and offers extreme value for money). At around £20-25 per head with drinks, we can't believe what the fuss is all about.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror review

The Stupidest Angel is one of Christopher Moore's book to be set in the town of Pine Cove, California. Strange things has happened to Pine Cove, California. A couple of years before a lustful lizard called Steve reigned terror on the town whose many crazy residents were unknowingly taken off their medication in exchange for placebos because the resident psychiatrist felt guilty by the apparent suicide of one of her patient. Before that in Practical Demonkeeping, the town played host to Travis and his demon servant Catch, where Travis attempts to seek a lost incantation necessary to get rid of his annoying green pal - whose hobby includes eating the people he meet.

It is almost Christmas in Pine Cove and Lena Marquez has just accidentally killed Santa Clause, her ex-husband Dale Pearson. Josh Barker, a seven year old child, witnesses the apparent death of the red fat guy and immediately prays for a Christmas miracle. Naturally no one believes him. Tucker Case, years after saving a bunch of cargo cult worshipping cannibals from an island, agrees to help Lena by providing an alibi, as well as sleeping with her. Constable Theo Crowe, already busy investigating a seemingly blonde 'robot', doesn't believe her - but a blackmail by Tuck only incensed him further. Meanwhile the angel Raziel is sent to earth to grant one child a wish that can only be fulfilled by divine intervention, and immediately misinterprets and grants Josh's wish and instead reanimated the town's dead - all of whom developed a liking for brains and Ikea furnitures! Further complicating matters is El Nino.

We see the return of many key Christopher Moore characters from his other books, including the archangel Raziel (from Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal), Tuck and his Ray-Ban wearing Micronesian talking fruit bat Roberto from Island of the Sequinned Love Nun, as well as some of the residents of Pine Cove, such as constable elect Theo Crowe and his samurai bearing warrior babe partner Molly Michon, friends Gabe and his dog Skinner, as well as Valerie (The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove) and Mavis Sand (Practical Demonkeeping, and the previous aforementioned title). Centre to the theme, these characters are brought together through their desire to be with one, a key Christopher Moore theme.

You will never read a more witty book that any of Moore's book. They tend to lead you to an unimaginable setting, often told through ridiculously exaggerated plotlines. His characters are very unique, indeed one of the many unique traits his characters has are how dysfunctional each of them are in their own right. The Stupidest Angel isn't a long book (it is one of his shortest work), but the entertainment is second to none. It is one of the most brilliant books I've read recently and comes close to Lamb as my favourite Christopher Moore book.

Christopher Moore books are very rare and difficult to come by. They are available on the eReader e-book platform.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Navman B10 SiRFstarIII GPS receiver review

The Navman B10 is a budget Bluetooth GPS receiver available from Expansys for a low £20. So what sort of performance do you expect to get from something that is dirt cheap? Surprisingly, it performs well. In fact so well I am ready to ditch my XDA Orbit altogether and exclusively use my Nokia E51 and B10 for my navigational purpose.

The B10 contains a high sensitivity 20-channel SiRFstarIII low power chipset, the current commercial darling of GPS receivers. While the SiRFstarIII has since been surpassed by other chipsets, like the MTX used by companies like Holux and Qstarz, the SiRFstarIII is still highly regarded as a reasonable performing general purpose chip that remains highly in use in both budget and high-end receivers. SiRF's ubiquity within the GPS navigation market is unsurpassed.

I had my doubts on ordering the B10 as I had such an awful experience with the XDA Orbit/HTC Artemis, which also uses the SiRFstarIII for its built-in GPS receiver. Fortunately this isn't the case. After unpacking and charging it up, the first test was from home, roughly 2 metres from the window. Using TomTom Mobile, I found that the B10 reported seven good signals from the satellite, were as the XDA Orbit was only capable of locking onto two. During a bad weather day with rain and all.

In real world usage the XDA Orbit will often take minutes to get a fix, even despite having downloaded the latest ephemeris data, and having a clear open sky. I remember being in Arundel a couple of months ago just holding the Orbit up to the heavens in the middle of an empty field, clear skies and all, urging it to get a fix from those blessed American satellites. Often to no avail as I cursed the XDA Orbit and threatened to throw it into a duck filled pond. The B10's TTFF performance however is a vast improvement over the Orbit, with it capable of getting a fix within 40-60 seconds from a cold boot.

Subsequently it took about 15-20 seconds for a warm start and 2-3 seconds for hot fixes, all despite the rather unimpressive weather condition. It was very capable of holding onto the fix even during times when surrounded by vast amount of forestry. Navman reckons that the accuracy of the B10 is within 5 metres, which is good enough, though hardcore Geocachers will likely want to look for something more accurate. Analysing the tracks I made with Memory-Map, I found that part of my recorded track tends to drift between 2-4 metres, and sometimes as far as 6-8 metres, from my real positions. At times, for example when travelling in the tube, the accuracy can decrease to around 10 metres.

Using it with a smartphone is easy. Just turn on the B10, fire up the Bluetooth application, pair it and you are done. In the case of the E51, I did not need to set up anything else. All the mapping applications I had - TomTom Mobile, Nokia Maps 2.0 and ViewRanger 2.5 worked perfectly fine acquiring signals from the B10 after the initial pairing. The only problem I had was with Mobile GMaps, a freeware mapping utility, which failed to see the receiver.

Charging the 850mAh Li-ion battery via USB takes roughly 2 hours and Navman quotes the battery as capable of providing 10 hours of GPS usage, which I think is reasonably enough for a day out trekking. The battery is removable, though I did find battery door nearly impossible to reopen. A car charger and USB cable is included in the package, which I left unopened in the box. Lord knows how many mini USB cables I have acquired in recent years. Still it is very generous of them.

The B10 is very petite (63 x 41 x 17mm, 56g) - not as tiny as Proporta's Freedom thingy, but small enough to dump into your jacket or bag and forget about it. There is even a lanyard loop so you use a lanyard to loop it around your neck. Hard coated plastic makes up the majority of the receiver's body and seems rugged enough to withstand most knocks. The finishing quality is pretty good, giving the receiver an 'expensive' feel. It isn't waterproof so its outdoor capabilities is limited to less extreme and drier activities. Personally this isn't a huge concern to me, but anyone looking for a more rugged receiver would do best to get a dedicated outdoor receiver like the expensive but highly rated Satmap Active 10 or Garmin Edge 705.

Overall the Navman B10 is great and cheap quality GPS receiver for people who requires a new or spare receiver for their GPS-less phones. It works well, and is small enough not to weigh the user down. Highly recommended, especially for less than twenty quid.

Update: Did some more tests today and updated the review a little bit.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Metal Gear Solid 4 first impression

From the moment Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots starts I knew that this would be something special and different. Eschewing the stealth approach of previous MGS titles, MGS4 opens with aplomb throwing you right into the middle of an intense battlefield - a showcase of Hideo's new 'No Place To Hide' approach, as well as the technological showcase of what a current-gen console like the PS3 was capable of. And yes Snake is still the old man he was confirmed to be some years ago and no last minute MGS2 style switch-a-roo (at least not within the two hours when I had the opportunity to play it), and playing as an old man has many disadvantages...

The first act of MGS4 is something that is not at all unique to modern video gaming. The setting is in a typical ravaged Middle Eastern setting where war is an on-going normality. The local militias are battling one of Liquid Ocelot's PMC (Private Military Companies) made up of standard conscripts and Gekko, a new generation of Metal Gear mechas. Littered in between are Hideo Kojima's trademark excessive use of cut scenes, which in my opinion, are what made this series so compelling. I am aware that near the end the cut scenes will tread towards over-excessive but I won't lie to you - I will be looking forward to those. The transition between pre-directed sequence to real time gameplay is so seamless, much more so than God of War.

The visuals are fantastic. If there ever was a game that one should use to promote high definition, this would be it. It was crisp, and the lack of overt-aliasing was pleasing to the eyes. Something that can't be said about GTA IV (which yes, I played a little bit of that too)... The graphics on the 32" Samsung 720p telly (not mine) is so good, I am convinced. Now I can't wait to jump on the high-def bandwagon but I will have to wait for 1080p screens to drop in price first, though I have to admit it is all so tempting to just order the special edition MGS4 PS3 pack now. Combined with the cinematography, storyline and script; Guns of the Patriots is the most film-like video game since, well, Snake Eater and such a title surely deserves the best telly.

Change is good and the way MGS4 takes stealth game forward by pushing you towards a none-linear battlefield, allowing you to choose exactly how you want to proceed, is beyond anything I've ever played. There is little doubt here if the rest of the game follows the same freshness as the opening first act (from what I was told, I was only halfway through the act one), this is definitely the game of the year.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Golden Joystick Awards

Obviously not all are true. For example I've never played Portal on the 360 - only on the PC, I've only played MGS4 for like 2 hours (best 2 hours of my life, this year), and Snails Reloaded isn't on the best mobile list (for shame Future, do you even play games???). But I am not going to pass off the opportunity to skew the votes now, am I?

Anyway, which of you nitwits nominated Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles and Sonic & Mario for best handheld game?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

O&O UnErase

Now this is something I rarely write about, but since this software practically saved 30GB of my data - I guess I was bound to at least write something good about it. As some of you may know (if you followed my Twitter), yesterday Vista SP1 wiped off 30GB worth of data from my portable harddrive. Not sure how or why. All I did was delete a single file, then the screen blinked once and the drive became unresponsive. After that only three sub folder remained, and all were empty. Vista threw a hissy fit at me when I attempted to right click on the folder to look at the properties. Anyway I unplugged it and plugged it onto a XP workstation and found that my worse fears were confirmed.

Fortunately I have a version of O&O UnErase installed (can't remember which version it was, but it definitely isn't the latest). Fired it up, and within a couple of mouse clicks it was recovering the missing files, with its file names and folder structures, onto the desktop. Once done all I did was recopy the files back to my portable drive. Very simple and efficient, though the application does seem reserve an awful lot of resource - almost locking up the computer and certainly making it almost unusable during the restore. After that I did a virus scan on the Vista machine, just in case, but it revealed nothing. So I am going to put the blame onto Microsoft's software incompetence.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Nokia E51 impressions

I was aiming to replace my XDA Orbit (HTC Artemis) as my daily everyday phone and decided to seek for an upgrade. It was a toss between this or the N81 8GB, but I did not like the 'plasticky' feel of the N81. And I certainly do not need 8GB of storage especially now that I have an A818. I finally decided for the E51, my first Nokia monoblock phone since the 7610. The phone has a very unique hate it or love it design. It is very slim and has built-in WiFi, HSDPA and Bluetooth A2DP, thus achieving almost every requirement I wanted (missing is GPS but I will let it slide since I already have the Orbit). The built quality seems to be excellent and the use of stainless steel material reassures me. It feels particularly weighty when held, in a good way. I accidentally dropped it 3 feet onto our hard wooden floor whilst charging it, and it survived with no scratches or dents on it. Impressive, though it doesn't say much about my clumsiness when it comes to handling new gadgets.

It is hardly bigger than the 5310 and the A818

After installing the bloatware known as Nokia PC Suite, I immediately fired up Nokia Updater. Alas, there were no firmware updates provided for my partially software branded phone even if it was factory unlocked. Thankfully O2 has not branded the phone in the same manner like their competitors. There are no physical branding, and any clues of from where I bought the phone from is limited to a theme, a screensaver and booting screens, plus a small note on the box. Suffice to say I won't be rushing to debrand the E51 any time soon so at least my warranty is protected. But I digress. So I got on to syncing with Outlook. This process was as smooth as butter and did not once conflict with my firewall (the same can't be said with Microsoft's own ActiveSync).

I started installing the applications I acquired during my N80 days, some of whose certificates has already expired, in which case I simply turned back the clock and continued the installation, while downloading the latest Nokia Maps 2.0 dataset. With the E51, running multiple softwares is no longer a problem. One of the things I disliked about the N80 was how slow it was, making S60 almost unfriendly to the point I almost wanted a Samsung. Running multiple programs simultaneously will often cause the N80 freeze, where as on the E51 the amount of available RAM after boot (around 50MB) allowed me to run multiple applications including resource hog Java without a hint of slow down. It certainly allowed me to appreciate Series 60 more.

The camera isn't that amazing though. It so happens that I brought the E51 along with me to St. Albans and gave it a couple of test shots. It performed slightly better than the one found on the Orbit, but was worse than the N80. The 2Mp sensor, lack of auto focus, cheap lens and Nokia enterprise division worked against it. Despite that it is an OK camera that may prove useful than the one found on the 5310. Still it is a standard camera module that I won't brag about. Here are some examples:

I had a couple of chance to call out and receive calls. Unsurprisingly the incoming call quality is far better than the Orbit, though I am not so sure about outgoing. Well, that's it for today's quick impression of the Nokia E51. I'll post a bullet point review some time later after I've more time with it and then decide if I want to keep it (I've got two weeks).

Waffle House, St. Albans

The Waffle House is a lovely cafe/restaurant next to the River Ver in St. Albans (great miedeval town BTW, with a wonderful high street/market). Set in a 16th watermill building, it is also home to a the watermill museum, where they serve great waffles in any imaginable way. Want smoked salmon and scrambled eggs on your waffles? You got it. What about bacon, banana and tomato? No problem, just make sure you get there way before 12pm. Any who... Jenni had the chocolate waffle with ice cream and I had the day's special (trifle with custard and cream). Great and definitely worth the queue. Mobile phone camera ruined it somewhat but I'll be sure to bring a proper digicam the next time we head there.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lotus Floating Restaurant

Pictures of delicious food from about two weeks ago when I brought my parents to Lotus Floating restaurant down in the Limeharbour. It is my favourite dim sum hangout in London and is definitely worth a visit every now and then, and one I always recommend people to go to if they happen to be in the Docklands area. Roughly £10 per head should net you a satisfying meal.