Tuesday, September 23, 2008

SanDisk's slotMusic full of fail

SanDisk's proposal of selling music on microSD cards reminds me of the failed attempt by Sony to sell pre-recorded MiniDiscs a decade ago. Before that was the Digital Compact Cassettes. Both failed miserably mainly because people knew they can just ripped their CD collection into cheap blanks. This was what I and countless of my mates did, and we still have our CD collection to convert into whatever is the newest greatest compressed digital format.

SanDisk's slotMusic idea may be great if they preload the cards with a lossless format like FLAC, but even then it will introduce a secondary step to convert the files for players without lossless support. But this is moot anyway, as SanDisk will be dumping lossy 320kbps MP3 files into those tiny cards instead. Unlike say, Blu-Ray, it does not provide any meaningful benefits over CD! If you willing to pay for lossy files, you may as well just save yourself a hell a lot of inconvenience and hassle by downloading them off a legal site anyway. And it really isn't that difficult to slot your CD into your PC and run an audio grabber program anyway!

Still I expect plenty of gullible people to buy into them. Those in the know will hold on to their 44.1 16-bit audio, thankyouverymuch.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Catch, Bushey

The Catch is a family friendly fish and chips store/restaurant in Bushey Heath. We visited the place yesterday and found it to be a fantastic restaurant staffed by lovely people.

At £9.50 for standard battered cod, it is slightly pricey, but the quality is amazing and the fish chunky. The batter is crispy, yet isn't oily to put you off (you can also have them grilled), while the cod itself is soft and meaty at the same time. Served with a generous portion of chunky chips (though they are pretty mediocre compared to the one we get at Bardsley's Brighton) and home made tartar sauce to top it off. For starters we had a a huge fish cake and prawn salad, both which were generously portioned and incredibly satisfying.

The staffs and owner were incredibly friendly and polite. It does get very busy at times and can be very difficult to flag one of the waitresses. It also happens to be very pricey (expect to pay around £15-20 per head), but a two course lunch and early dinner deals are available from Monday to Saturday (a snip at £7.95 per head).

Overall we love it and would not hesitate to dine there again.

114-116 High Road
Bushey Heath
WD23 1GE
Tel: 0208 950 4679

Saturday, September 20, 2008

O2 Select

Apparently I have been made an O2 Select member.


I am not sure what the requirement is to become a 'special' priority member, but I am guessing 7-8 years on O2 may have helped! Among the "benefits" of being one of their top customers, I get priority customer service over a freephone number - which may have been useful a couple of years ago when I had to call them up loads of times due to billing issues (my complaints documented on this very blog, look it up as I can't be bothered).

I also get to upgrade 3 months before the end of my contract (or credit to account). Replacement mobile phones are also promised to be made available to me within 24 hours if I have a problem with my phone during its warranty period. Some has complained that we are required to pay an 'excess fee', but I don't see that written in their short T&C. Finally I also get 25% off all accessories sold at their stores. O2 stores tend to mark up the prices of their stuffs, so I doubt I'll be taking advantage of their generous offer anytime soon (unless they start selling Denons!).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ozeki Hana-Awaka sparkling sake

This little bottle contains sweet (-60), bubbly and sparkling junmai sake. It is the first time we have had sparkling sake, and is actually very similar to sparkling wine. Tasty and a very light, casual drink (the alcohol level is only 7%). According to those in the know, this sake is meant to be served at room temperature.

I'll be perfectly honest here, we are no sake experts. We only picked this up last night from central London due to its spiffy bottle design (well, colour) and nothing else. It isn't cheap compared to western wine (it costs around £4-5 for 250ml), but we think it is worth it.

The sake is imported by JFC (UK) Ltd.

The perfect netbook

Netbooks are all the rage now. But for some reason they've never appealed to me. Either the keyboard sucks or the trackpad are too small or the dumbed-down Linux experience too shallowed, convoluted and restricted. And let's not forget about the design. Most netbook are just toy-like. You may as well replaced 'EEE PC' with 'my first computer'. Even the classic Psion 5mx released more than a decade ago provides more oomph than a modern Acer Aspire. You would think with improved tech and miniaturisation they would attempt to put a modern x86 Atom in something similar. But for whatever reason, they don't.

What I would like to see however is Sony re-entering the market with an updated version of their classic VAIO Picturebook. The Picturebook shown above was the C1VN. It was released in 2000 and despite its age still completely outclass the majority of new netbooks in certain key areas like ergonomics. I had the opportunity once back then to play around with a Picturebook and found the keyboard to be awesome (for its size), the widescreen screen perfect for web browsing and a trackpoint that makes so much more sense than a small trackpad. The only issue it had was the price, and back then it was ridiculous to spend more than £1k on a netbook, let alone on a normal ultraportable. But the design was great and even today still tests . I regularly see derivatives of the Picturebook sold at prices (£300-£800) that would make current new netbooks blush with envy.

Oh and if Lenovo has any clue on where the market is heading, they would do best to update the ThinkPad S30 series and bring them over here!

What I would like to see in a netbook:
  • Great design
  • Great keyboard
  • Great battery life (6-9 hours)
  • ULV processor
  • Windows XP or a none-crippled Linux UI
  • Trackpoint, nipple, pointing stick whatever you call it - it just has to be there
  • Support for at least two memory cards (SD and MS) with the ability to boot from

The death of Lillywhites

The last time we went to Lillywhites was more than a decade ago. Back then it used to be a specialist sports store, and a classy one at that. As we happened to be in the area yesterday (I tend to avoid Piccadilly Circus for various reasons), so I thought that we should just check the place out.

Imagine my surprise when I walked in to find a Sports Soccer shop instead. Actually, it should not be a surprise really as a burly bodyguard stood near the entrance - one of the most unwelcoming sights in any stores, and not to mention the number of '70% off!' posters outside. Stacks of discounted replica football shirts, tracksuits and trainers aimed at local and overseas chavs littered the place, with barely a hint of proper sporting equipments in sight. Nothing wrong with that if those are your thing, but we already have Sports Soccer shops (or whatever name they are using now) in every corner of Britain. We scurried out of the dung-hole almost instantly.

Returning home I quickly look it up online to find that the once fine London institution was sold off to Sports Direct a couple of years ago. Having experienced the dire quality of Sports Direct's own brands (like Karimor) and their stores (rude staff, lack of refund policy), at least I now know more about this scheming business empire and their multiple arms. A shame really, as I really do like Carlton racquets (but at least now I have an excuse to buy Yonex).

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Video games for travelling

We made the mistake of packing two DS and two PSP consoles when we last went on holiday. I only touched the DS once to play a bit of Final Fantasy IV DS and the PSP for WipEout Pulse and a little bit of God of War, but for most part I totally ignored both consoles.

Games like Geometry Wars may sound like perfect travelling games, but as I use the stylus to play it has proven very difficult to play due to bumpy coach rides, as well as the lack of seating space. As such I often ignore bringing any DS games that requires the touchscreen to work - unless we take the train. Rhythm games like Patapon and Gitaroo Man! are also a no for me, as the precisions required to succeed would be compromised.

I think long RPGs are ideal for travelling with, mostly because it is while travelling will we have the time to invest in it - particularly grinding. Another genre suitable for on-the-go gaming is racing, you know fine games like OutRun 2006 or WipEout Pulse. These are wonderful 'dumb' games that doesn't require much of your brain to function, and is always a delight to find someone else in your train/coach/plain with the same game when local multiplayer makes travelling fun. Both of these also support online multiplayer, very useful if your hotel offers free wireless online access (ours did not).

But really, I hardly ever touch my DS and PSP during weekend retreats. I'll bring them, but I often find myself preferring to listen to music while looking out the window admiring the view. In the hotel I prefer to rest as much as possible (we never plan in advance - just go around as much as possible, which explains why our retreats are so chaotic and tiring) or a search for a restaurant to dine in. Still I doubt I'll ever leave either DS or PSP at home the next time we go off as you never know when you may have the urge to game.

In reply to Zorocaster.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Metallica - Death Magnetic review

Death Magnetic has been hailed as the second coming of Metallica. After the offensively bad St. Anger, Metallica seemed keen on recapturing their former glory, this time their pre-Black album thrash/speed metal roots. Out went the baloney known as Bob Rock of Bon Jovi fame and in came Rick Rubin of Slayer fame. More importantly the return of the old classic Metallica logo advertises a clear intent by the Bay Area band that they mean business. But can even Rubin reconnect the band to its roots it so desperately seeks, or will Metallica be as stubborn as ever?

For a band that for almost two decades kept alienating more and more of its fans (music wise, I couldn't give a damn where they shop from - besides Armani Collezioni is a fantastic clothes brand - fact), it is very admirable that they kept the wishy washy hard rock sound inherited by Bob Rock for so long. But with the failure of St. Anger, it was probably wise that Metallica finally got rid of Bob. Truthfully, they probably didn't need to make this album, as even I doubt that they still have the same passion in music making as they did a decade ago. But enough speculating, how does Death Magnetic sound?

Well, it sounds a bit like what you will get if you have a clash between the Black album and ...Justice for All, and other stuff in between. Death Magnetic is both heavy and fast (well faster than anything has ever put out the past 17 years), but is it any good? While St. Anger sounded confusingly ugly, Death Magentic is almost instantly recognisable as a thrash metal album. It does not sound like anything Metallica has ever put out, and despite the mishmash identity crisis (more on this later) sounds rather like a live Metallica album, without the teenage fans. The Rick Rubin influence is very evident, for example at times South of Heaven-like heaviness. The following is a track by track review.

That Was Just Your Life - Starts with a heartbeat, that slowly progressing into the first new thrash metal song by Metallica we've heard 18 years. Basically, for the first four minutes after you wonder why was the past two decades wasted on shit when they can still write power chords like this. Five minutes in, and ladies and gentlemen, we have Kirk soloing! This is a serious thrash song, that while isn't as memorable as anything on their first four albums, is pretty damn fast. The riffs are intense as well, kinda like 'Blackened' but overall a rather average if still heavy song.

The End Of The Line - Kirk's shredding the guitar powerfully here and is one of his best efforts of late. There are hints of Masters of Puppets here and there with catchy shreds, though Sir Cliff's influence is clearly somewhat missing. The solo here is ridiculously pacy, but isn't particularly pleasant to listen to. By the fifth minute mark of this eight minute track, it starts to get tired and you wonder when will it end. Still about the one of the more memorable tracks here, and is one of the heaviest.

Broken, Beat & Scarred - A very Right the Lightning song, but with clear influence from their later more groovy catchy later albums, that turns a potentially good track into a very mediocre track with an identity crisis me thinks. One of the weakest tracks in my opinion that will likely be skipped in future listening. Despite that contains some bad ass riffage and a fine solo by Kirk near the end, and Lars actually played here.

The Day That Never Comes - With the military theme, 'The Day That Never Comes' is a throwback to Metallica's first Grammy winner. Both tracks has very similar structures. Starts clean and slowly distorting itself over James's rather bizarre vocals. James does seem to struggle with the vocals here. An overdue "machine gun"duo solo reminiscent to 'One' clearly takes advantage of old timers, then another intense Kirk masterpiece before it ends abruptly. Overall, a heavier speedier version of 'One', one that is closer to their later influence than 'One' was. And Lars with his snares... gah!

All Nightmare Long - Bizarre first half minute intro aside, the riffing here is rather frantic. In fact, the riffing here reminds me a hell a lot of Carcass's fourth album Heartwork. Catchy riffing as hell. Despite the speedy riffs, the direction of the track is somewhat a mess and James's vocals seriously ruins it. Wasted opportunity as I rather like Kirk's insane shredding and solo here.

Cyanide - By far the weakest tracks on the album, with James screaming nonsensical stuff about suicide and cyanide in rhythm. Metallica can't pay hardcore punk and having a former Suicidal Tendencies bassist won't change that. The solo was pretty good though, though nowhere near the quality of the rest of the album. And I think Lars went off to play tennis while recording this track.

The Unforgiven III - One look at the title and I cringed. Why? The first two 'Unforgiven' weren't that amazing (with 'The Unforgiven II' being a load of crap), and 'The Unforgiven III' doesn't do anything to change that. You can never get bored of 'The Ecstasy of Gold', but it sounds bizarrely out of place here considering how mediocre the track is. The heaviest of 'The Unforgiven' trilogy, but despite a brilliant solo, overstayed its welcome. It could easily have been a leftover material from their Load era...

The Judas Kiss - Surely by now people would have suspected that Lars is playing a set of tin cans? Speedy riffing is rife here and the savage heftiness of Slayer-influence makes a shows. While isn't as heavy as I would have preferred, the track was almost too good. Almost like 'Creeping Death'. Almost. But after two weak tracks, you can be forgiven for thinking so. A fairly standard Hammet solo with overuse of his favourite wah-wah pedal...

Suicide and Redemption - Ah, an instrumental epic. The first for such a long time. Will this be another 'Orion' or 'The Call of Ktulu'? Uhm, no. It is repetitve for one, and the tempo is slower. The lack of classical influence is another. The first couple of minutes sounds like very raw jamming with good bassline. Then a playful but cool Kirk solo kicks in and another faster one on the sixth minute mark. Lars drummings are okay here. I can't see this being a classic, but it is still a serviceable song that went overboard. Personally I think a minute or two should have been shaven off.

My Apocalypse - The final track of the song. If it is anything like their Master of Puppets or ...And Justice for All's counterparts, 'My Apocalypse' would be a Death Magentic's version of 'Damage Inc.' and 'Dyers Eve'. Basically a ferocious thrash metal song to seal the session up. The track more or less lives up to its final track honours. It isn't the heaviest nor the fastest track of the album though.

Overall, Death Magnetic sounds like what Metallica should have put out after ...And Justice For All. But this is 2008 and the attempt here is a little tired with very little lasting impression. Tempo changes and shredding leads makes a welcome return, but in attempting to emulate their old sound all the while retaining a little bit of the Black album and Load, the album has a serious identity crisis. It kinda sounds like Testament, at times Slayer and at times both awful and majestic Metallica. Tracks are a bit too long, and felt like they were stretched for the sake of stretching. Old Metallica epics were always long, but they were also multi-layered with progressive and dynamic changes - almost medley-like, but here they sound tedious.

On its own merit, Death Magnetic isn't too bad, if a bit too accessible. The lack of any memorable tracks is rather off putting. James doesn't sing, or rather scream as he used to. His lyrics are also embarrassingly emo-ish and downright crap. And Lars - well Lars being Lars he just need to play his drums. Despite that I quite enjoyed Death Magnetic. Either way, it is likely my opinion may change with more listens. Discerning fans may found out that it isn't fair to compare it to their old classics, which I grew up with and of which each I probably listened to at least a hundred times. So don't blame me if in a couple of years I rate it differently. Honestly, I've had to re-write this post a couple of times because I kept finding stuff I like and didn't like.

Metallica will never do another Kill 'em All, Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets, nor will they recapture their former glory - that much is clear. Fortunately for the current Metallica, Death Magnetic is a step in the right direction, even though it's more a gross over hyped but decent product than a excellent musical direction. It isn't what I was hoping for, but Death Magnetic is still easily their best album since ...And Justice For All.


Death Magnetic is out now, and is available as a limited edition box-set, plain CD, vinyl box-set or the Death Magnetic deluxe coffin box with goodies. Your pick.

Death Magnetic not heavy enough? Check out Testament's Formation of Damnation, Slayer's Christ Illusion and Megadeth's United Abonomination.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Prinny: Is it Okay if I'm the Main Character? awesomeness

Fans of Disgaea and platforming genre ought to rejoice. Prinny: Is it Okay if I'm the Main Character?, spin-off of the Disgaea franchise, looks bloody awesome. The game which based on the trailer is a 2.5D platforming game with (hopefully) some RPG elements and may or may not star Laharl (the red scarf is a dead giveaway) as everyone's favourite demon slave penguin. Best of all, Prinny's signature suicide blast is included (don't worry you will have 1000 lives!). Oh I can't wait, dood!

NIS, please localise this!

More screens here, via PSPfanboy

Monday, September 8, 2008

N+ for PSP review

Like flOw, N+ is based on a popular free internet game. Now optimised for mobile platforms (available in both DS and PSP flavour), with more contents thus giving us a chance yet again to pay for what originally (and still is) free. However as N+ is designed to be played in short burst with short levels, it has proven to be a perfect gaming-on-the-go portable game.

The concept of N+ is simple: play as a pixelated Ninja and lead it through a bunch of obstacles. Something a bit like Lode Runner, but also a bit more frantic and furious. Like Bandai-O Spirits, N+ is a game that requires exceptional twitch skills within the gamer to master the game. It does remind me somewhat of the classic Prince of Persia game, where pixel perfect wall jumps are high on the required to-do-list. N+ is rather easy to get into but very difficult to master, especially once the difficulty curve goes through the roof. While they are no gamerpoints of trophies to boost your ego, much like echochrome, there is a satisfaction to be had every time a hard level is conquered.

Time limits per level requires quick thinking players as they control the Ninja through the game's complex but often flawed ragdoll physics engine. Controlling the Ninja could not get any simpler. Understanding how N+ works is simple - only three buttons are used while in play: left, right and jump button. When a level begins, get to the switch to open the door while evading obstacles, then get to the door ASAP. Obstacles includes such niceties as lasers, mines, turrets, guards and other such murderous contraptions that wouldn't pass even the least strict building regulations code. A number of different modes of play is available in N+. The single player 'Race' mode with a time limit. Co-op allows a partner to join in on the fun. Unfortunately as the game does not support 'download' play, playing co-op will require you to purchase additional copies of the game.

Visually the game does not look much different from the flash version, and you can toggle on "enhance" graphics if you think it does enhances the look... But this title is a perfect example of offering pure gameplay and the simplistic visuals only enforces the ideal. Actions are quick as you can handle as the superbly animated Ninja death scenes will hopefully spur you on through the hundreds of available levels. Speaking of death scenes, you will not get bored of seeing your Ninja explode into thousands of red pixels as you miscalculate a jump.

In a nutshell, N+ is simply an awesome game that every self confessed gamer should play. It offers something that it slowly eroding from modern games: challenge. With the ability to create your own custom levels and downloading shared levels, there really isn't any excuse to miss this. Buy it now. With tens of hours of content, you owe it to yourself.

N+ is available on the DS, PSP and Xbox Live.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Nokia E66 review

This is my review of the new Nokia E66. Sorry for the late post, it was drafted a couple of weeks back and I merely forgot to post it. It is a little rough, but I really can't be bothered to proof read it. Detailed review on the Nokia E66's multimedia and GPS performance are available as separate posts.

The built quality of the E66 is excellent. They were no flexing or creaking when I applied pressure on it from all sides. The construction material used is similar to the E51 with stainless steel used sparingly. They do attract fingerprints but is very easy to clean and does not scratch easily. An improvement over the E51 is Nokia's decision to get rid of all the rubber encased side buttons. You get normal buttons here, which makes operating them easier, though accidental presses are also now more likely. The power button is in bright red, which I did not find aesthetically pleasing to look at.

The large screen is rather nice, but at a rather archaic QVGA resolution things can get pixelated. Nokia ought to ditch QVGA and finally adopt VGA, but I have no problems reading e-books for long periods with the 2.4" screen, which produces a slightly cooler colour than the E51. An ambient light sensor sits next to the earpiece and detects the available light, adjusting the brightness accordingly. I had no problem with the readability of the screen when used in doors as well as out doors. Like most of Nokia's new device the E66 ships with a screen protector already placed. The screen protector has a matte like texture which does well in preventing fingerprint stains from spoiling the screen.

Below the screen are a bunch of keys arranged in a layout that made its début with the E51. The keys are large but are made of clear plastic. This unfortunately doesn't provide the same tactile navigational feedback that is possible on the E51, which also has the advantage of having raised keys. Pushing the screen up will reveal a numerical keypad that is similar to the E51 (albeit with a rougher texture). I had no problem composing e-mails and texts with the keypad. One very clever thing Nokia did was to get rid of the annoying notification LED and have an unobtrusive d-pad glow instead. It is very subtle, and very cool.

The heftiness of the E66 gives it a quality that seems missing from most large phone and you can tell that Nokia wasted very little into packing as much hardware into the darn thing. However after getting used to the E51's light weight I am finding the E66's extra 20g as unwanted baggage. It not that it is uncomfortable to hold for long though or the centre of balance is skewed, it is just I am not used to it. Given time I am sure I will adjust to the extra weight. The slider, like the one on the E65, is spring based which gives it a nice click when opened. Removing the stainless steel battery cover reveals a spring loaded microSDHC slot (a 2GB card is supplied in the sales package). The battery itself is rated at 1000mAh with a claimed talk time of around seven hours. This will of course depend highly on the network conditions in your area. A lanyard loop sits on the bottom next to the charger slot.

With Pop-Port now a distant memory, Nokia has decided to make the universally acceptable mini USB port obsolete by packing in a micro USB port, something I do not understand. While micro USB is an industry standard, I can't see how they could not fit the more ubiquitous mini USB port in it. The E51 uses it and it is thinner than the E66. Even worse is Nokia's still cave-like insistence on equipping the E66 with a 2.5mm headphone socket. The E66's multimedia capability is pretty good, so one does have to wonder why Nokia is adamant that people use inferior headphones with it... Perhaps a Nokia-led market research proved that the majority of business users are like sheeps and will only use the bundled headset.

As far as performance goes the E66 is snappy. As quick as my E51 and at times quicker, though I did notice that the E51 is a tad quicker at launching apps, despite running on the same Freescale single core ARM11 platform running at a clock speed of 369Mhz. With 73MB of accessible RAM, you won't have problem running 20 applications simultaneously. One thing I dislike about the E66 though is Nokia has coded some kind of fade-in whenever you switch to another window. In truth switching between windows is instantaneous, but the effect does give a false impression of sluggishness.

The E66 runs on Symbian OS 9.2 with their Series 60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1 UI layer, not the latest version but a very capable one nonetheless. Nokia has provided a new Calendar and Contact application. The Contact apps now feature T9 search support and the Calendar app reminds me much of the Calendar app on Palm OS - it was very intuitive. Other value added softwares includes QuickOffice (limited functionality, which allows you to view files but not create them unless you upgrade), Dictionary, Barcode reader (works poorly on linear barcodes, but well on QR), Intranet access via VPN and a bizarre app called we:offset that claims to the first mobile CO2 emission offsetting tool. You can also set up the device to receive push e-mail through Exchange ActiveSync though I am sure a compatible BlackBerry Connect client will be made available. The Webkit browser works well, but I personally prefer to use Opera Mini. Either way Access should release a S60v3 compatible version of NetFront.

Unfortunately there is no integrated threaded SMS application installed, which is rather annoying. Even Palm, known for the lack of innovation, had it on their Treo 650 way back in 2004... Nokia does provide a threaded SMS application for download, but I found the interface to be clunky and not as streamlined as those found in Treo phones. One value added software that Nokia did right is a utility called Switch Mode that allows you to quickly preload customised Today screen (tied to profiles), for example one for work with a none-offensive wallpaper and tons of plug-ins with a silent ringer; and another for play with minimal plug-ins and easy access to all the multimedia applications. Very handy and I do wish they would back-port this and include it in future firmware updates for their older models.

RealPlayer is included as the E66's default video player. The performance is good and was capable of playing QVGA MP4 files I encoded for my PSP. Flash Player Lite 3.0 is also included for those seeking to play back SWF files. A link to Nokia's Music Store is included for those seeking to purchase compressed music, something I will advice people to avoid until Nokia's Comes With Music is launched. The music player is a bog standard player similar to the one that is installed on their N-series phones. It can play back MP3, WMA (none protected), AAC and AAC+ files with cover art support. You can sync the music collection via MTP if you prefer. A FM Radio application is also available for those bored with their collection but requires a headset to be plugged in to work.

The camera is is 3.2Mp module with autofocus ability. It can also do close-up up to 1-2 inches. Images taken are better than expected, but seems over processed with plenty of bloom. Videos are recorded in MP4 and supports a maximum resolution of QVGA. Rather annoyingly the camera shutter is located too close to the middle of the E66 making it difficult to press. Bizarrely pressing down the camera shutter doesn't start the camera application either. The UI of the camera viewfinder isn't as intuitive as I hoped, being far too slow and cumbersome. A front VGA camera sits next to the front speaker.

Incoming and outgoing call quality is very good. Similar with the speaker phone. You can also train the E66 to use voice activation to place call, which I personally won't bother. A log allows you to review every call you made or receive for up to 30 days. These includes any packet connections which is helpful if you have applications that like to connect without first informing you. The E66 is quad-band GSM equipped, making it a truly global phone though 3G is limited to dual-band with dependent on which region you purchased the phone. The reception of the E66 is rather limited. In our bedroom the E51 and Jennifer's 5310 can tend to pick up six bars of signal, where as on the E66 was only able to achieve four bars of signal and at times dropping down to three or even two!

You can use WiFi while making calls which is great. The built-in WiFi 802.11b/g chipset supports WEP/WPA/WPA2 encription. The E66 is a 3G device with HSDPA 3.6Mbps. I had no problem downloading and viewing heavy websites. The Bluetooth 2.0+EDR chipset has the A2DP profile crucial for wireless stereo music - it works with my Sony Bluetooth stereo headset. An Infrared port on the side allows you to use the E66 as a TV remote (dependant on third party software) or exchange files with very very old phones. Finally you can tether the phone to your PC via USB and use it as a modem.

The E66 is Nokia's first E-series slider to be endowed with a built-in GPS receiver and can be assisted via the downloading of ephemeris data in advance to help with speed. It took it about 70 seconds to get a fix from cold boot and it wouldn't work indoors unlike our Navman B10. You can read more about the Nokia E66's GPS performance from this dedicated article, but as far as GPS performance is concern the an external Bluetooth receiver is highly likely to provide better performance. The advantage of having it integrated is you do not have to worry about carrying multiple devices during none-crucial trips to towns or perhaps on hiking trips where performance evaluation isn't that important. It works with Nokia Maps 2.0 and Viewranger, as well as my friend's copy of Garmin XT (the application sucks though).

The N95's accelerometer is a nice touch, but I found the auto-orientation more of a hassle than gift, even despite it being fairly accurate and quick. Fortunately this can be disabled via in the Personalisation-Display menu. However with Nokia Activity Monitor, the E66 will be a gift to active people who loves to count their steps when doing serious walking. Combined with Nokia Sports Tracker which uses the GPS receiver to calculate your sports, the E66 is one serious sports utility. Unlike some of Sony Ericsson Walkman phones you can't change skip tracks by shaking the mobile. Instead you can use the accelerometer to reject calls or snooze the alarm by turning the phone face down.

The Nokia E66 is by no means perfect. It improves on the E51 in many areas (GPS, camera), while going backwards in others (micro USB). Personally I still prefer the E51 for its compactness and lightnesses, but the E66 is still worth considering. For around £100 extra you do gain some extra functionalities, some of which I personally think aren't worth it. If you require a QWERTY keypad, you may be interested in the new E71 which has similar functionalities to the E66 plus a much bigger battery - all for the same price.


  • Snappy
  • Abundant of connectivity: EDGE, HSDPA, WiFi, Bluetooth, USB
  • Internal GPS receiver with A-GPS support
  • Tough and sexy stainless steel slider design
  • Robust software
  • Large screen with good outdoor readability
  • Great multimedia support


  • GPS accuracy isn't as good as dedicated Bluetooth GPS receivers
  • Micro-USB connector
  • 2.5mm headphone port - you know at the very least bundle an adaptor
  • Low dot pitch screen

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sony Reader PRS-505 impressions

I've been an avid e-book reader since the old days of grey scale Palm devices, where Palm OS once dominated the mobile world (oh how they squandered their market share). The best e-book reader I've ever used is actually the Dell Axim X50v (well before it was nicked), which has a wonderful 480x640 screen that made reading books and mangas a joy. The problem with these and modern devices are the (lack of) battery life and the inability to read books outdoors.

Today I had a chance to play around with Sony's recently released (in the UK at least) Sony Reader PRS-505. The PRS-505 is an updated version of the PRS-500 which was released in 2006. The PRS-505 contains a 6" 600x800 resolution (perfect for reading graphic novels) electronic paper screen with support of up to 8-levels of grey scale. E-paper allows for a massive improvement in battery life (around 7000 page turns on the Reader) as well as paper-like characteristic (high contrast, flicker free, readable in the sun).

The Reader supports Sony's BBeB book format (in both DRM and none-DRM form) as well as both protected and unprotected PDF, TXT, RTF, DOC and ePub e-book formats. It is a shame that Palm documents (pdb) doesn't work on the Reader and I won't hold my breath that the Reader will eventually support it (which is a darn shame).

The UI is quick to understand. The 'menu' buttons acts as a 'back' button that allows you to cycle through the menu. Like digital music, e-books can be sorted through different categories e.g. writer, publisher etc. A couple of buttons are laid on the bottom of the Reader and a quick access short cuts (0-9) that allows you to easily select books/chapters etc.

Dedicated page forward/backward keys are also easily accessible near the right edge of the Reader, though it may annoy lefties. The Reader is made of plastic and is about the same size as a trade paperback. It is also much thinner (about the same thickness as a standard mobile phone) and light. A Pro Duo card slot is available to supplement the 256MB flash ROM.

When I first handled the Reader I thought it was a none-working demo unit. This was because the screen looked as though the texts were printed on a paper then stuck to the screen, kinda like how mobile phone shops market their none-working 'display' units. It was that good. The screen isn't paper white as the background has a sort of light greyish tone to it, but it does look paper-like.

The contrast is good though and black isn't as the blackest black I've seen (if that makes sense!). Screen refresh (the whole screen flashes black for a fraction of a second) is on the slow side, but isn't slow enough to detract from the experience. Text is very clear and is easily readable in the sunlight. Three text size options are available, great for people who tends to purchase and read large print format.

Personally I am going to wait for a while until the e-book selections at Waterstones increases (they have about 3500 fiction books for sale). It would be best if Waterstones gives customers an option to buy electronic books at a discounted price if they also buy the physical copies. But perhaps best of all, the Sony Reader is surprisingly open and allows you to upload and read the tens of thousands of copyright-free books from Project Gutenburg.

All in all, I really do like the Reader. At £199, it isn't too bad a début price considering that Borders UK is selling the iLiad e-book reader for a massive £299-£399. And while the screen does not offer the same experience as reading on a thick high quality printed paper, it is still the closest you can get an electronic screen to be comfortable on the eyes. While it won't replace hardbacks, but if you travel a lot and is an avid reader, then this may be your dream product.

The Sony Reader PRS-505 is now available for £199. Unlike Borders UK, Waterstones has decided to backup the Reader with a dedicated online store. While the selection seems respectable they don't seem to be selling e-book versions of Christopher Moore's books yet (eReader does - but the books won't be compatible with the Reader).

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Final Fantasy IV DS remake review

Now that Nintendo has finally (well almost) abandoned development of the DS in favour of pursuing none-gaming Wii money, DS owners has been looking towards 3rd party developers to pony up to its core audience. One such developer has taken up the task with massive enthusiasm. In fact Final Fantasy IV DS, the game I will be writing about today, is Square-Enix's 17th game on the platform - with many more due within the next six months.

Having said that many of the titles are either ports or remake of old titles - Dragon Quest Roto trilogy, Chrono Trigger etc. While Final Fantasy IV DS isn't exactly a new property that many I am sure would rather have, the fact that the classic title has been redesigned from the ground up meant that it almost felt like a new title. While the plot and gameplay remains almost unchanged, the script has been written, visuals upgraded from sprites to polygons and some new gameplay introduced.

Comparisons to the previous Final Fantasy III DS is inevitable, but the two could not be any further apart. While Final Fantasy III eschewed storytelling for addictive gameplay and its revolutionary job system, Final Fantasy IV was always best known as the title that finally introduced some kind of storyline within the franchise. While most of the time you would not really care about deaths in the previous game, Final Fantasy IV is littered with death (I won't spoil it for you), or what may seem like loss. It is a storytelling strategy that Square (and Square-Enix) has since used in many of its future titles.

The story begins with the delusional Dark Knight Cecil, leader of the Red Wings of Baron. Through certain circumstances where a bunch of innocent villagers got killed, Cecil eventually turns on his now corrupted kingdom. During his journey to salvation he teams up with what is now easily one of the most memorable cast of Final Fantasy characters assembly, including the Summoner Rydia, twin extraordinary Palom and Porom and Dragoon Kain (who is now more Dark Knight-like than Dark Knight Cecil himself!). Together they aim to defeat the dark lord and restore peace to their surrounding kingdoms.

Final Fantasy IV DS attempts to introduce some form of customisation in the form of Augment System (known as Decant Ability System). Personally I've ignored the new feature so please forgive if my explanation seems rather elementary. Abilities are scattered throughout the game, some hidden and some through event-triggered circumstances (such as when certain members leaves the party). These abilities allows some degree of customisation and gives party members new abilities that were previously unavailable to them in previous iterations of the game. Another new addition to the remake is the New Game+ mode which gives you access other features. I've yet to delve deep into New Game+, but from what I was told that you are limited to three playthrough. In addition to being useful to completists, two bonus bosses are also available in New Game+ mode.

Controls are via the face buttons. Thankfully you are not forced into yet another gimmick stylus touchscreen controls, as I personally believe that face buttons works best in games that features an overhead perspective - they just work. The semi-old school Active Time Battle is retained, relatively unchanged from the original with minor UI tweaks and a new feature to toggle auto fight. Auto fight, unlike the superb implementation in Final Fantasy XII, is an utter gimmick here. You can only specify a single type of action and unlike Final Fantasy XII's gambit you can not assign a trigger to the action. It is probably useful during level grinding but for random fights, and especially boss fights, I would not recommend to use it unless you have a video gaming death wish.

Visually Final Fantasy IV DS is similar to Final Fantasy III DS. While they look better initially (due to the none-chibi like character designs), on closer inspections I've found that character models in comparison to Final Fantasy III are slightly downgraded. Polygons are clearly rougher and the liberal use of camera close-ups tends to reveal nasty looking textures. While still a technical achievement, I often wonder how much better a remake of Final Fantasy IV would look if it was remade on a more powerful machine like the PSP or Wii, using either the Crisis Core's or Crystal Chronicles's visual engines instead. There are some nice touches like self shadowing and hair flutters but those are limited to cut scenes (Adrian in the comments section brought up a good point about the number of characters on screen will undoubtly cause the developers to reduce visual fidelity). Having said that, the character designs are wonderful even though nowhere as accurate as Yoshitaka Amano's designs. Regardless I expect this title to be the limit on how the DS can be pushed visually, though I hope to be proven wrong with Dragon Quest IX.

Voice acting is the bane of this otherwise enjoyable remake. While I initially looked forward to voice acting, I now wish that they were banished and space saved to be dedicated to better quality textures and bonus dungeons. I did mention that the script has been redone and now features more a ye olde English screenplay. The voice acting on the other hand is mainly littered with atrocious and contradictory American accents, for example Palom and Porom sounds more like the Olsen twins than wizards. I've no qualms against American accents, and the cast is made up of some pretty damn good voice actors - veterans of series like Shin Megami Tensei and other fine franchise including other Final Fantasy titles. But somehow American accent and fantasy storytelling does not seem to gel - just imagine Viggo Mortensen doing a GI Jane accent in Lord of the Rings. Still I am impressed by the way they sync their lips to the voice acting. The re-arranged soundtrack excellent, but you know that already. Tip: wear headphones.

Now, plenty of people have complained about the difficulty in Final Fantasy III DS. While we personally found Final Fantasy III DS to be easy, I am glad that Square-Enix did not retool Final Fantasy IV DS's difficulty to appease these RPG noobs. In fact the difficulty has been ramped up even from the already hard GBA version, giving us a delightful treat of challenge after challenge. The save system remains essentially the same - you can only save in the world map or dedicated save sections in deep dungeons - so be prepared to read nasty reviews by people who lacks foresight or the ability to strategised correctly. Regardless we didn't feel like we spent too much time purposely grinding we did in Final Fantasy III DS - the goal to achieve 100% exploration in exchange for bonus treats probably helped.

Final Fantasy IV DS is, despite its lukewarm conversion, the definitive version of the game. But somehow it felt that Square-Enix just needed another excuse for people to repurchase Final Fantasy IV for the fourth or fifth time. Perhaps there was nothing wrong with Final Fantasy IV in the first place and the 3D remake did not go far enough, or perhaps I would have loved it more if this was the first time I played it and not the sixth time. Overall, anyone who has never enjoyed the classic title should play this. It is a flawed rework, yes, but it is still a wonderful game that deserves to be appreciated by all.

Final Fantasy IV DS will be released in the UK this Friday.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Bangai-O Spirits box-art defiled by USK

If you have been following my Twitter blog, you would know that I've been raving about Bangai-O Spirits. The game is awesome I give you that, but the one thing that irked me about the title is the box-art, or to be more precise, the manner in how the German software regulator Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK) ruined it.

Oh yes, if the yellow colour isn't loud enough USK is very keen to point out that the title is only suitable for those aged six and above. Never mind that the classification symbol sucked in the first place (notice how PEGI ratings uses a larger font while retaining a much smaller footprint), but what is a German software rating classification, which isn't a sticker, doing on my copy of Bangai-O Spirits in the first place? Reminds me of the Dawn of Sorrow's boxart. And it isn't like the DS box has much real estate with that hideous white large Nintendo DS logo...

I probably sound like a whiny bitch, so I will shut up now and continue playing Bangai-O Spirits. Ruined box-art or not (or just get the US version) would not stop me from having a blast (Treasure you rock!).

Apologies for the crappy image, my camera's broken.