A quickie, (or a slowie depending on your interpretation)

Your humble Penguin has been knocking around on computers for let’s say, a fair while. He even remembers the days when you had to put a telephone receiver onto a little box so that it could make lots of little clicking sounds while trying to exchange data across a phone line.

However those days of hideously slow net connections are over as this is the 21st century and everything’s like all fibre optics and stuff so I was surprised to get this little reading while downloading an update for my system.

Virgin-are-shit

Yes, 481 bytes a second, lucky boy that I am. Not that this is the first time, the other week I got an estimate for downloading an ISO image of a Linux distribution of sometime about three weeks later – bless.

According to my ISP they’re connections are faster than a speeding… Well actually they don’t say so this is probably one of those clever bits of marketing like ‘up 1 trillion megabits’ when in reality you’re going to be bumbling along on half a meg, presumably that would be a speeding snail then.

However that said, it has been a very long time since my download speed was measured in bytes. Suffice to say I didn’t get much done that night and opted for an evening playing Age of Empires 2 Conquerors Expansion.

Viva la technical revolution.

Change of ISP on the cards.

Phorm – a personal perspective

Things are as far as I’m concerned pretty much in now. There’s the odd query or question regarding this system that I’d like clarification on but I’m not that fussed.

I’ve tried my best, although admittedly quite skeptical from the start to be fair and listen to what Phorm have had to say.

However, I’ve made up my mind. I am with one of the three ISP’s that are planning to implement this system and it is simple from my own perspective, I’m with Sir Tim Berners-Lee on this one as a consumer. If my ISP’s implement this system, they will no longer be my ISP. They may ‘just’ about get a reprieve if they configure their system in such a way that it constitutes a change in the terms and conditions of customers, that those who are in or out are handled at the ISP’s authentication level and that no part of my data stream goes anywhere near any bit of kit run by Phorm.

I think the problem is thus. It doesn’t matter about opt-out or opt-in cookies or any kind of guarantee that my traffic will not be analysed. It is now simply a matter of principle about what I as a customer want and how I consider the relationship with my ISP.

It’s pretty simple. I pay said ISP for a connection to the internet for a certain amount of bandwidth at a particular speed and they provide it. I don’t want content added, manipulated or impossible to block pop-ups on my screen.

I’ve spent far too much of my time messing around in both a professional and personal context with Windows based machines, hacking (manually in many cases) spyware, adware and viruses off them. I became fed up of spending my time having to deal with systems that worked in a way that meant I didn’t have control over what was going on. That’s why I run Linux, it’s about freedom, control over everything that I want on my system. It’s why I run Firefox because I can customise my web experience exactly the way I want it. Put short, it’s about individual freedom and choice, an underlying principle of the net.

This system and it’s future potential use if expanded to other areas like adverts before downloads or pop-up adverts between page loads isn’t what I want from my web experience.

It’s being marketed on the basis of providing two core enhancements to people’s web browsing. Anti-phishing technology that doesn’t seem to have any tangible benefits outside of what is already present in most good (or not good) browsers and ‘more relevant advertising’. From my perspective this is no benefit to me. I can spot a phishing site a mile off despite how clever it might be.

I don’t click on online adverts, I never have and never will because the internet for me is about finding things. If I’m after information or a particular product I’ll go out and look for it myself, adverts for me are nothing more than a waste of bandwidth.

Now if my ISP wanted to offer me a service that blocked all advertising I might well be up for that. It would save them bandwidth and costs and my web experience would be enhanced and if I could sign up to that as an individual customer, it be part of my terms and conditions then it would be great. I wouldn’t get any adverts that I’m not going to click on anyway, the ISP wouldn’t waste bandwidth serving me up adverts from sites because I’m not going to click on them anyway and the website publisher isn’t losing revenue from their adverts not being presented on my screen because, and I think I’ve mentioned it before, I’m not going to click on them anyway; everyone’s a winner.

I started a post last week about the dynamics in the market that are driving this situation, didn’t get it finished but will endeavour to this week.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note two things. Firstly the amusing revelation that Phorm, a company that it’s fair to say has a distinct competitor position to Google, uses Google’s services to monitor what people are saying about them online and secondly that no matter to whom I have discussed this issue, techie or non-techie, not a single person has said to me, yes, more relevant advertising, that’s exactly what I’ve been after all these years to enhance my web experience.

There’s an Eee in the air

First review of the year goes to the Asus Eee PC and in true tradition we’re going to strip it down and assess every aspect of it in as critical manner as possible.

I’ll add, just in case anyone wonders, no I don’t get paid for this or receive freebies for any review I do although if any company wants to send me bits of kit to play with I’m more than happy but I am overly critical and if I think it’s rubbish I will say it.

I’ll also note that I don’t like what previously were considered to be sub-notebooks, ie very titchy laptops so I do have somewhat of a prejudice against these bits of kit primarily on the basis that manufacturers generally charge over the odds for lower specification machines simply because they’re small.

That said, and rather spoiling the overall outcome of this review, I like the Eee PC, I like a lot, almost enough to buy one which is rare for me as I’m one of the most stubborn consumers around.

This all started the other day. I’m not sure why I suddenly got interested because I was well aware of the Eee PC’s existence last year but it might have been something to do with looking up the prices of various bit of hardware for a mate on Maplins website and there staring at me on the home page was one of these little bits of kit for the princely sum of 260GBP. Wondering if I could find one cheaper I began a little look around and although expecting there would be some online dealer somewhere with the best price, I was quite amazed that the cheapest I came up with was for PC World for 220/200GBP.

With this in mind I wanted to know more than simply what a list of specifications and reviews could tell me so I decided to pop up to Wolverhampton to hunt one down. Sadly Maplins only sell them online but up at PC World they had one with the strange handwritten description of Asus Internet Tablet which both misrepresents the fact that it’s not a tablet, nor simply an internet access device such as the Nokia N800. It is, a full blown computer, just very small.

On to the important stuff now. What’s the specification of this little bit of kit?

Well, as far as processor’s go it’s not exactly going to get any prizes, comprising of a 900MHz Intel mobile Celeron processor. Again, I have come to loathe Celeron processors over the years and if presented with a normal laptop with a comparable processor I wouldn’t touch it but this isn’t a normal laptop and much in the way I accept my mobile phone can be a bit slow to do things with complicated software, I accept that there’s a trade-off between processing power and energy consumption in small battery powered devices that short of a revolution in battery technology isn’t going to change any time soon.

However, this isn’t an issue because the need for processing power is determinate upon what you actually do with the machine and what operating system you’re running on it. Presumably Windows Vista would cripple the Eee PC if you could get hold of a flash card large enough to actually install it on in the first place. It’s capable of running Windows XP but I’d hazard a guess it would run OK but a bit slow. There is of course no need because it comes pre-installed and pre-configured with a customized version of Xandros Linux. Yes, shock horror, it runs Linux, but there’s nothing to be afraid of, none of that scary typing stuff into a command line, there’s pretty little icons and everything that your average PC user should easily be able to work out.

It’s worth noting that the operating system as a user interface has obviously been thought about very seriously from an end user perspective. I use Linux, it’s no secret but you can find even in the most user friendly distributions that it still assumes a reasonable level of knowledge on behalf of the end user. In the case of this system it has been made as simple as possible and if I may I’ll give you an example. Once again inviting the wrath of the disciples of Steve Jobs, someone did describe me as a Mac hater today, I have no idea why. The iPhone. When I was having a play with it to do a review last year, next to me were a couple of teenagers. They’d picked up on all the media hype and what they wanted to try out was its internet capability. They however had a problem, they couldn’t find it on the iPhone. I did point them in the right direction but the reason was simple. Apple put their Safari browser on the iPhone. Great if you’re a current Mac user or reasonably tech savvy enough to know that Safari is a web browser but for someone who’s never used anything other than a Windows PC which pretty much makes up the bulk of all users Safari means nothing.

In contrast the Eee PC actually uses the Firefox browser. Is it called Firefox? No, it’s simply a picture of a globe with the description ‘Internet’ and if people can’t work that one out then they shouldn’t be let near a computer of any sort. The principle is clear though, as with it using the Pidgin instant messaging programme, it’s simple described as ‘messenger’ same with the applications, it doesn’t tell you it’s OpenOffice.org, simple word processor and spreadsheet. Put simply it’s a ‘does what it says on the tin’ device that anyone could learn to use in the space of five minutes and of any feature it has, that is probably it’s core strength.

That said and much as Xandros seems very nice, I’m sure I’d have a bash at sticking Xubuntu Linux on one if I got the chance, or possibly even DSL (Damn Small Linux).

Back to the specification then. 512Mb of DDR2 SDram memory which is nothing special but will happily run pretty much anything you are ever likely to do on such a machine. I have the same amount of memory in my desktop and it quite happily performs any task I ask of it and the only programmes you’re likely to need more memory for are top level graphical rendering and games which no one in their right mind would consider doing on such a device. Another nice touch, despite its size, the RAM chips are as good as box standard laptop RAM and so I’ve been told is quite easy to take the bottom off and replace the RAM with whatever size you fancy. I think it’s a single strip but that will allow up to 2Gb of RAM and who could possibly want more than that?

Graphics/Display:

An Intel GMA 900 powers along the graphics which isn’t going to set the world on fire for rendering but as one of the pre-installed games if Tux Racer (3D penguin racing down a ski slope game) and given previous attempts at getting this game to work on my machine failed because of poor graphics hardware then it’s quite impressive.

On the actual display itself there is something baffling about the Eee PC and so far my first criticism. It comes with a 7″ screen that renders graphics at a resolution of 800 by 480 pixels yet a good inch and half down both sides of the screen are taken up by the speakers. If you’re dealing with such a small machine then you would arguably want to maximise screen size rather than leaving acres of space unused. That said, 800 pixels in width is perfect for rendering most (well built) websites but those extra two inches would have made a much better desktop environment for the end user.

Hard drive:

Two varieties here although a third is on its way. There’s a 2Gb and a 4Gb with the 8Gb soon. Doesn’t sound a lot and it’s not really but we’re not talking about a home PC with hundreds or thousands of photos and music files, it’s a mobile device for general purpose web surfing, document creation and amendment and e-mailing/chatting. That said, the 2Gb version is probably too small as taking a look at the one in PC World it left 270Mb free space after the operating system and programmes. However, with memory card slots and available cards up to 8Gb (there might be some bigger ones but haven’t spotted them) there’s plenty of room for expansion so combined with the 4Gb model that gives a total capacity of 12Gb which to put into perspective. The last time I backed up all the home data it came to 12Gb in total. That’s all the photos, videos, letters and anything else you can think of and that’s in an uncompressed format and barring a handful of truly massive ‘avi’ files it would have been more like 3Gb so while it seems small compared to what we’re used to in normal hard drives, you’re unlikely to fill it anyway.

I should add, it’s one of those Solid State Drives as in no moving discs that can get damaged relatively easily in normal laptops. These drives aren’t big and are costly but will come down in price but allow for a much more robust machine and they are the future.

Connectivity:

Well, there’s 3 USB sockets, an ethernet port and it’s got wifi (both b&g), 3.5mm headphone and microphone sockets so what more could you ask for? One gripe though. As far as I can see there’s no integrated microphone, that would have been handy.

Battery life:

Apparently it lasts for 3 hours according to the manufacturer. As with all mobile devices it will depend on what you’re doing with them but the reduced power needs of having a SSD hard drive helps, as does a memory light operating system.

Build quality/style:

Build quality is very good. Not quite up to Mac standard or as stylised as a Nintendo DS but still very good quality and feels like it could take a fair few knocks before things start going wrong. Not so sure about the ‘rocker’ mouse button. That was the only part that didn’t feel quite as good as the rest. On style it’s nothing special to look at. Comes in black or white, personally I like the white but each to their own.

Price:

So far and happy to be pointed in the direction of a cheaper outlet but 200GBP for the 2Gb version and 220GBP for the 4Gb version at PC World. For what you’re getting which is in effect a full blown PC with integrated wifi and anything you’re ever likely to need this is nothing. Someone’s bound to make the comparison sooner or later but it’s the VW Beetle of the mobile computing world, affordable mobile computing for the masses.

Usability:

Two areas of key concern here. The keyboard and the touchpad. At first I thought the touchpad was a bit too lively but calming it down through the settings it was perfectly accurate and usable. One would think that such small keys would be impossible to use but they give good tactile feedback, are intuitively placed for anyone used to a standard keyboard and I found myself happily tapping away after a couple of minutes practice.

Criticisms:

Monitor size could have been bigger. Integrated microphone seems obvious but not there. Mouse button rocker feels less rugged than the rest of the machine.

Strengths:

Simplicity and versatility. The OS is so easy to navigate and understand that a child could use it. It would arguably make a perfect first introductory PC to a child. Equally it’s a fully capable machine for business and professional use, home browsing on the sofa or in bed, would be great for the kids and educational purposes or for traveling when you don’t feel like carrying a full size laptop, weights 0.92kg by the way. I have a sneaky feeling that for all the hype and media attention devoted to other IT products out there that this little laptop with have a dramatic effect on the market akin to introduction of the first affordable Amstrad home computers back in the 1980′s.

Odds and sods:

Oh, it’s got a 1.3Megapixel integrated webcam, which is nice.

Is the Apple iPhone any good?

A bit of a review time now and very much catching up with all the hype about the world changing must have new gadget from Apple.

I’ve been a bit disparaging about Apple in the past but now the iPhone is in the shops and I could take an hour or so to play with one I thought I’d give an independent analysis of it.

First up, it’s made by Apple so we know from a hardware perspective we’re getting a nice bit of kit. Apple are disproportionately expensive in the products they make but the built quality is exceptionally good so there’s nothing wrong with paying a bit more for better quality in my book.

Style wise it’s an Apple product, they’ve got this sorted, sleek, looks nice, stylish, what else could we expect so if the trendy ‘looks good’ factor is what you’re after then it’s way up there in the stakes.

So, well built and looks good, all the Apple hallmarks that we would expect but where these are it’s strengths, it also inherits the traditional Apple weaknesses. Some really basic things like, you can’t change the battery or the sim card. It does seem rather obvious when you think about it but who would buy a phone where if the battery or sim card goes bandy you can’t just take the back off and swap it over? No, it will have to go off for servicing by Apple so anyone who does buy one should really consider keeping back their old phone just in case, not that you’re sim card will work because your account will have been paired with the card that you can’t remove from the unusable iPhone and even if you did keep your old sim it takes networks time to transfer your number, sometimes hours, sometimes days depending on how good they are.

For a business user or someone who relies heavily on their mobile for communication then being unavailable for even a few hours cost money and business. Contrast this against every other phone on the market (at least every one that I can think of) where if your current phone breaks, it’s a quick hunt around the bottom draw or in the attic to dig out the old one, swap over the sim, charge it up and you’re away again within minutes while you sort out a repair.

On to the user interface now. It’s been lauded as the major wow factor of the phone. A revolutionary touchscreen interface meaning the elimination of buttons except the big one at the bottom that takes you to the main menu. It’s good, very good actually, clean scrolling, if a bit slow on rendering when it comes to web pages but we’ll come to that in a bit. Using it to navigate around the menu system is easy and intuitive.

However, and that was obviously coming. The keyboard layout and functionality is rubbish. Now for the record, your humble Penguin is not the biggest of blokes in the world when it comes to his fingers. I’ve spent large amounts of my life messing around with techie stuff doing fine and intricate things and without wishing to blow ones own trumpet I’d rate my finger dexterity as being pretty good, spare for a bit of RSI in my left index finger through years of using laptop mouse interfaces.

However with the iPhone keyboard I just couldn’t get the hang of it. I know some have criticised it’s lack of tactile feedback which is true and obviously Apple have had to squeeze a full QWERTY keyboard layout into a small space determined by the size of the screen but typing on it is not particularly easy. You may well get used to it after a while but much the same as I really don’t like laptop touchpad mice I didn’t like this either.

What it really needs is a stylus but that would make it a PDA which isn’t what it’s supposed to be. Might be OK for small children’s finger but tricky for me and heaven knows how difficult for my friends of a rather larger stature and fingers like sausages.

Apple have also compromised in terms of the keyboard and limited space by dropping all the things like numbers and characters to separate screens. So if for example you wanted to put a full stop or a comma into your text then you have to press a separate button to navigate to that screen to do it. Equally for a phone that talks up it’s online usability you have to do this for such common characters as the ‘@’ symbol. This is silly, a pain for the user and ironically a lot slower to achieve than the old fashioned character layout on standard mobiles where characters, number and letters share the same button and simply require multiple presses of the key to get the one desired.

That said, with the exception of the keyboard, the touch screen navigation is very good, intuitive to use and it’s greatest strength is it’s simplicity of menu navigation in that it’s fairly obvious where everything is and finding things isn’t a problem.

That leads us on to ‘what you’ve actually got’. My mobile, the Nokia E65 is labyrinthine in terms of it’s menus and options and compared to the simplicity of the iPhone might be a bit of a challenge for the average user to find certain things. There is of course a good reason why the iPhone is so simple, it’s because it doesn’t actually have that much. I spent two sessions with the iPhone, each about 20 minutes long in both the Carphone Warehouse in Walsall and in Wolverhampton. By the end of my first stint in Walsall I’d explored everything that the iPhone had or could do. The second session was just picking up on a few things in hindsight I wanted to check out in greater depth for this review while killing some time waiting for a friend.

After owning my Nokia E65 for 8 months I think I’ve just about found out everything that it can do now although there’s a few little bits and bobs I haven’t played with because I don’t need them but the fact that I could get through everything on the iPhone in under an hour is indicative of its intrinsic weakness.

It’s got the obvious functions like a camera, picture browser, web browser, text messaging, e-mail support, mp3 player, calendar/organiser, clock etc but what was telling for me was that the clock function is directly on the main menu page. On first impression it just said to me, this phone hasn’t got much so we’re filling up the main menu with stuff to make it look like it has. There’s so much that could be there that isn’t in comparison to other handsets and certainly no ‘killer applications’ to make it stand out. If it had something like a very good GPS system then perhaps that would make it stand out. It’s obvious that Nokia think GPS is the next big thing on mobiles being already in place on handsets like the N95 which in theory is what the iPhone’s competition in the market is and other new handsets they’re bringing out.

When we analyse the reason for this then we return to the fundamental corporate model weaknesses that Apple have that I outlined before. Their position of trying to control and develop software for their products on their own means the end user is left with less. Not wishing to sound like a saleman for Nokia who have their own problems and are certainly in the same category of major multinational corporation but on the issue of interoperability although they haven’t got it completely perfect in their approach they are certainly much further ahead than Apple.

A little bit of history, but important in the context and something that as end users of these products as the technology becomes more advanced, it’s something that we should all consider.

Mobile phones these days are a lot smarter than they used to be when I had my first one. It was a Nokia 8110 which I still think is one of the best phones ever built. It could do voice calls and text messages (I vaguely remember it having the memory to hold 12 text messages before you had to delete them) but things have certainly moved on a lot in terms of functionality to the point where modern mobiles are not exactly that far off miniature computers particularly in terms of their need for what are in effect equivalents of operating systems to handle all the ‘programmes’ and functions. There’s a few out there, Microsoft have their Windows Mobile system, there’s Linux derivatives that are gaining ground but the big player is Symbian.

Nokia did a deal with Symbian back in the late 90′s to work together or takeover depending on your perspective. Symbian had the track record of providing the OS for the Psion PDAs which at the time were easily better than anything else on the market. Without going through everything in much greater detail, Nokia ended up with the Symbian (S40) (S60) and (S80) platforms to run on their phones. The S80 system was run on the old Nokia Communicators up until the latest version which has the S60 system and it appears that all the focus is now on the S60 OS.

It’s not free open source software like Linux OS’s but at least from my perspective far better than the restrictive OS that the new iPhone uses or a Microsoft Windows clone. There’s a fair amount of third party development for the S60 platform which means that users of it can hunt around for free/paid for additional software to increase functionality and that’s where we return to the iPhone.

With the iPhone you get what you pay for, there’s next to no ability to personally extend its functionality and you are wholly dependent on Apple for upgrades, fixes or dare I say it, some new software/programmes to run on it. I’m planning another (shorter) review on Opera Mini as playing around with the iPhone gave me the bug to try out my own phone’s online capability but the analogy is there. I wanted to see what was about in terms of a web browser for my phone, I had a little look, found something that I quite liked the look of, installed it and use it. I can’t do this with the iPhone, I’m tied to Safari (which is quite good anyway) as a web browser and their e-mail client. I don’t have the freedom to change these things and I particularly like the idea of choice.

So we’ve got a pretty damning evaluation of the iPhone’s actual content. Put in a nutshell, it doesn’t have much and the end user has no real way adding things outside of the rather limited constraints of the phone.

Again on the constraining nature of the phone, it’s locked status. Unless you’re minded to get the soldering iron out and crack the case open with no guarantee that after a ‘software update’ from Apple everything that you’ve done might well not work again, not to mention invalidating the warranty, you’re constrained into only one operator, O2 in the case of the UK. There’s some interesting rumblings going on over in Germany where Vodafone are taking court action which could end up with an EU ruling on open competition if things really get going but this is a big issue and again a heavy criticism of Apple’s approach to restrictive practices.

In the mobile market, at least in the UK we have developed the practice of paying more money on monthly contracts with the promise of ‘free’ upgrades on handsets. They are of course not free, just subsidised through higher monthly payments which in some other EU countries would be illegal, Finland comes to mind. There they pay much lower monthly bills but customers have to purchase the phone themselves and pay the actual market price for it.

There is then nothing new about having limited choice in terms of handset according to operator but that has always been the market position, that the operator chooses which models and makes to obtain from manufacturers to supply to customers. Apple has reversed this and in effect done deals with only supply one operator within certain geographical areas with it’s handset irrespective of whether other operators would wish to sell them. All in all a very poor anti-competitive practice which consumers should have in mind when considering purchasing an iPhone, not to mention being effectively tied to one operator for as long as you have the phone because even once the initial 18 month contract is up you’ll still not be able to switch because, well you know this already, you can’t take the sim card out.

On to its web capabilities now, which is another big selling point of the phone. It’s good, the Safari browser ports well to such a small screen and the ability to turn the phone sideways and it automatically changing to landscape mode so you can actually be able to read text although nothing more exciting than the inclusion of a mercury switch is a really nice touch. Scrolling with the touch screen on web pages is great and very easy. Rendering times on websites in all the demos I’ve seen on TV and in stores is also usually really fast.

BUT….

From a grammatical perspective I don’t start sentences with the word ‘but’, nor do I have a preponderance for the use of CAPS but this is a very big BUT.

All the demos are using the phone via a wifi connection so of course it’s cool and really fast. The only slight problem is the distinct lack of Wifi hotspots to actually use it. Great if you’re at home or in the office or live in Lincoln (I think) but as presumably any iPhone user is probably going to have one of those old strange things with lots of keys and big screen like a computer in their home or office and not live in Lincoln then a computer might just be preferable. The problem remains that there simply aren’t enough hotspots knocking around for viable web browsing on the move nor the cross compatibility of different networks so if you really really really want to browse the net on the move then you’re on to the good old GPRS/3G network browsing.

One slight problem though, the iPhone doesn’t have 3G capability meaning it’s actually slower to browse the net than every other phone in it’s class. Why is this, is the question?

Well, it’s simple. It’s an American phone, it’s designed primarily for the North American market where they don’t have 3G networks like us in Europe. Put simply, it’s just not up to the level on connectivity that we’re used to over here with our faster networks. There’s a note to add to this though before we suddenly get all full of pride as to our technical superiority on this side of the pond. Although what we have in Europe is ahead of the US, it pales into insignificance compared to the levels of speeds in Japan. They have broadband on their phones with speeds of 8Mbps which is faster than what I’ve got at home.

Digressing for a moment but about 7 years ago a Japanese friend of mine showed me his phone which he couldn’t use over here in Europe but its capabilities then are pretty much where my phone is now. They never particularly took to text messaging in Japan, they had things like e-mail straight off on their phones so lets not get too big headed on this one.

That said the criticism is there, it wasn’t designed with our networks in mind so on one of it’s core selling points, it’s web browsing capability, it runs short compared to the competition for us European consumers.

Final two points on the browser, clicking on links isn’t that easy with the touch screen if they’re small. I could just about get to some links by using my fingernail (not exactly advisable on a touch screen) and clicking about 3 mm above the actual link I wanted, not very good for blogrolls where large numbers of links are stacked together in small text. Equally and I’m happy to be proven wrong but I looked everywhere for a zoom function and couldn’t find it. Most websites render well but some still have small and almost illegible text not to mention accessibility issues for people with visual impairment.

Price. It’s expensive, not only does it come with an 18 month contract at a minimum of £35 a month (does go up to £55 a month), there’s an initial outlay of £269 for the handset. That’s £899 assuming that you only use the allowed 200 voice call minutes and 200 texts on the basic package. Compared against my own package, also with O2, I pay less than £35 a month, have the same unlimited data access and although I’ve lost count, a significantly larger number of minutes and texts, oh and my phone was free (as in not free but subsidised to the point where I didn’t have to pay extra for it).

How does it do on multimedia? Again it’s flagged as being a core strength of the phone. I’m not that interested in multimedia element of mobile phones, if it takes a reasonably good picture then I’m fairly happy but as Apple have played up its capability then it does need some evaluation. Well, it unsurprisingly takes photos, has a camera (2 megapixels), does video, plays it all back and has an MP3 player on it.

The problem is that pretty much every phone has that so there’s not much to shout about. My Nokia E65 isn’t targeted at multimedia user, it’s a business phone and Nokia have their N Series phones for more multimedia orientated consumers but even my phone has all the multimedia capability of the iPhone, same size camera, does video, plays it all back, has an MP3 player so what exactly is there to show the iPhone as something different? Mrs Penguin has a twelve month old Nokia N73, it does everything the iPhone does and has a 3.1 megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss lens on it which knocks spots off the iPhone, it also has an FM radio which the iPhone doesn’t. Let’s not get on to the actual comparison to the iPhone’s main competition in this field, the N95 with a 5 megapixel camera and Carl Zeiss lens, oh and an FM Radio. That’s not to mention the iPhone has no flash, no zoom and no night mode all of which the N95 has.

How does it fare on connectivity? We already know it’s not 3G but there are other methods of connection that phones tend to have. Infra red connection? No. OK, let’s try Bluetooth. Yes, well sort of. Bluetooth is a cracking bit of technology allowing devices to communicate using radio frequencies. You can send all sorts of stuff via Bluetooth, data files, pictures, music ported to speakers, headphones, hands free devices even send files straight to printers from a mobile which although I’ve never tried it even my phone can do.

The iPhone can support sending music and hands free according to it’s specification guide to a headset. It can’t send files like picture to your mates sitting next to you in the pub, be used as a bridge between a laptop for mobile web surfing, it can’t port out music to an external hifi system set up and it can’t send files/pictures straight to your printer.

It does however come with a cable you can plug into a computer and Wifi but lacking all the other things and I think it’s fair to once again compare to the Nokia N95 as it’s the core competition which has all these so it’s really not looking good for the iPhone.

Would I buy one? I think it’s fairly obvious from what I’ve written that I wouldn’t. I’m not its core market audience. I’m a distinctly critical and savy consumer. I’m also a techie in the sense that a mechanic would look under the bonnet of a car to evaluate it rather that looking at the bodywork. It is not as good as my current phone on almost every count and there are phones on the market that are light years ahead of it in terms of functionality.

Who would buy one? When you first check it out it’s obvious who it’s aimed at. It’s got core functionality hooked up to social networking sites, YouTube and edges itself towards its multimedia focus. It’s for relatively young people who’s lives consist of uploading their nights out to their Facebook account and YouTube clips. It’s not a serious business phone for the more demanding customer. It’s designed to be hip, trendy, a style statement but from a technical perspective it’s nothing more than mutton dressed as lamb.

What’s the overall conclusion on the Apple iPhone? It’s lacking in functionality, connectivity, slower than others on web browsing, lacks software that’s standard on many other phones, doesn’t have a ‘killer application’ to set it apart from the competition, is highly restrictive but it looks good, is well built and has a nice touch screen user interface even if clicking on links while web browsing is difficult and the keyboard is crap. It’s built for the North American market not the European one which is why it falls down against the competition over here. It’s aimed at a certain part of the market who value style over substance and it will probably do well with these consumers because that’s what they want, to buy into the image, not consider the actual ability of the phone. It’s way over-priced for what it is and a final comparison to the N95. O2 offer the N95 for free on an 18, £30 a month contract. Presumably without additional unlimited data calls but even adding on a bolt-on for that it’s cheaper and it does so much more.

Got one

It’s taken a while, been truly frustrating that such a simple bit of kit isn’t readily available from the likes of B&Q or Homebase but while on holiday in Germany I picked up one of these.

rainwater-diverter

It’s a rainwater diverter that simply fits into the down pipe and diverts rainwater via a hose to wherever you want it. When I’d first been perusing the guttering/piping section in the local DIY store I’d completely missed them but after having another good look they were staring me in the face all along and 16 EUR later I’m finally the proud owner of one.

It is interesting to compare the easy availability not to mention difference in price of such environmentally friendly bit of kit in Germany compared to the UK. I had a commitment to a certain project of which I’ll do a proper write up another time but finding the various elements has not necessarily been easy. I would hazard a guess that German society is simply more geared towards a market of consumers who do undertake such projects to save energy and resources.

In some ways that is a sad indication of how far we have to go in the UK to changing our living habits to conserve the environment around us. However is this a case of the market not responding to demand or the demand not being there in the first place? In my case the demand was there but the market supply wasn’t. I was lucky enough to just happen to be in Germany and have the ability to pick up the specific item that I wanted but that’s not an option for everyone.

Lets just hope now that the rainwater diverter fits. I haven’t measured the pipe yet but it looks about right and I’m sure I can fiddle it if I have to.

German roofing

I like doing these comparisons between different countries, after all comparative systems (primarily social welfare) are my academic background although I’m quite rusty these days.
The one thing you notice in Germany, or at least I do which probably says something about my love for buildings and architecture is the roofs. When I think about the roofs on buildings back home they seem drab, boring and unimaginative in comparison. Even on our older buildings that in other ways are beautiful to behold, it seems that the roofs are an afterthought, something plonked on top to keep the rain out but not utilised to their full effect.

When we get into housing estates that most of us reside in the picture gets worse. From the late 60′s onwards to the present we seem to have become addicted to lifeless and drab concrete roofing tiles as if there were no alternative. Mark this against slate which for obvious reasons dominates Welsh roofs and emanates a sheer natural beauty of its own.
However in Germany, the traditional baked terracotta, a design and style that stretches back to Roman times is the one that is favoured.

German roofing example

It’s not used uni-formally though in a single style. There’s multiple styles and shapes of roofing tile, of different colours and textures. Personally I quite like the glazed tiles which shimmer in the sun and you can see here.

German tile showhouse

I wish I had more time to get around and take more photos, I don’t think we’ll be going back into the city centre before we leave but some of the roofs there have been imaginatively used to almost artistic extent. Even in the suburbs there’s a great sense of individuality about roofing which probably stems from it being more traditional in Germany to buy a plot of land and build your own house as opposed to our get a developer to put up a lot of homogeneous lifeless boxes mentality that we have in the UK.

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Why is Germany cheaper than the UK?

OK, lets qualify that title first. Germany isn’t cheaper for everything, definitely not healthcare, of which there’s a lengthy post/essay on that to come whenever I can get round to finishing it. We’re talking about general stuff to buy in the shops. I’m not much of a consumer, shopping is one of my least favourite activities but when I do partake of the consumer activity I’m fairly ruthless when it comes to getting a good deal.

There are a few things I’m interested in at present. Mainly techie stuff, computer components and DIY stuff, building materials and the like so with this in mind I’ve been comparing prices.
Before I left I was looking up the price of RAM for PC’s. I might one day have the finances to build a new computer and I’d like to have at least a Gigabyte of RAM. There were some strips of 1Gb RAM in Maplins circa

Recycling – the German way

In my current location there’s two wheelie bins outside, a 240 litre and a 120 litre bin. I’ll just do a little disclaimer. I know next to nothing about how waste disposal is organised in Germany but I’m enquiring. Whether my current location is typical of the whole country or whether there is great difference between the different states of the Federal Republic I don’t know so what we’re doing here is just taking a snapshot of this particular bit of Brandenburg that I happen to be in.

The 240 litre bin, akin to the one that sits outside my front door back in Willenhall is solely for paper, nothing else. Its smaller counterpart is for generally non-recyclable materials. Also out of site in the outhouse are a further two other 240 litre bins that are yellow and are for plastics.

This sparked off a thought I’d had for a post before I left that I simply didn’t get round to. There was an article in the Express & Star about fortnightly collections in Walsall. A couple of weeks previously, our wonderful Cabinet Member for Environment in Walsall, Cllr. Rachel Walker had announced that Walsall would not implement fortnightly collections when the Express & Star did a survey of the local authorities in the Black Country. However just before I left she announced that Walsall Council would be looking at fortnightly collections and there’s going to be some public consultation on the issue.

By the way, when we say public consultation, we actually mean according to the article in the Express & Star that Walsall Council will ask residents whether they want a 240 litre bin that will be collected once a fortnight or a 120 litre bin which will be collected once a week.
This poses some interesting questions some of which are specifically related to Walsall given its other policies.

Now for myself personally, we never get anywhere near filling our 240 litre bin primarily down to us already being quite conscious about recycling and avoiding as much packaging on the things that we buy as we can or to the annoyance of Mrs Penguin, my own obsession with finding ingenious ways to re-use the packaging for other purposes.

However when it comes down to it, there is no choice that Walsall Council is giving residents. Whether you want a big bin or a little one, you’re going to be limited to producing 120 litres worth of waste a week as opposed to the current 240 litres and that is what it amounts to, nothing more, nothing less, Walsall Council wants to cut down on the waste it collects. I myself would prefer one of the small bins and I am rather keen on weekly collections. Some local authorities have switched to fortnightly collections and it’s obviously an issue that certain sections of the media are building up as an issue to bash local/national Government with.

When the likes of the scream sheets are building up a bit of a bandwagon against fortnightly collections and in defence of weekly collections it almost sparks off a questioning of my own views but we’ll deal with thatanother day, back to Walsall Council’s policies for a bit.
What does intrigue me about this plan by Walsall MBC is that Cllr. Rachel Walker appears to be indicating that people will have a choice between two systems that are in essence the same in terms of what you’re going to be able to chuck in the bin in terms of quantity, halving it to be precise. I have for a long time taken a great interest in public policy implementation. Those that know me well, know I’m a stickler for efficiency, I don’t like waste so please indulge me while I get my head around this policy.

As a resident of Walsall MBC, I can choose and I probably would, to ditch my 240 litre bin for a 120 litre bin that Walsall Council will empty every week. Lets say hypothetically that my neighbour and for arguments sake, everyone else in my street retain their 240 litre bin that Walsall Council will empty every fortnight.

If I’m due for a weekly collection that means the binmen have to come to my street every week just to collect my bin but nobody else’s. That at least from my perspective smacks of a very inefficient use of public resources. So will there be a quota? A set percentage of properties needed in a street to justify a weekly collection, if so then that’s not real choice or as this humble old cynic suspects, is this a case of attempting to introduce fortnightly collections by the back door without the Tories in Walsall having the bottle to go to the public openly with the policy at an election or stand up and justify it?

Then we move on to the issue that is very much an individual case for Walsall as it doesn’t affect any of the neighbouring authorities.

In Walsall, residents who require a new/replacement for broken/stolen wheelie bin have to pay Walsall MBC

Patio cleaners

For someone who’s spent many an hour on his hands and knees scrapping between patio paving I’d often wondered if there might be a slightly more efficient method than using a hand tool than looks like a mini-pickaxe to do the job.

I like DIY stores in general but after going around a few in Germany I’ve come to the conclusion that B&Q and Homebase are a bit light on choice. I’m not sure if it’s anything to do with the German mentality for doing things right but there seems to be something for everything so while in Britain I’d probably pick something up to do the job fairly well or bash about a bit till it can solve the problem, here it seems there’s a specific little jobbie designed to fulfil the task at hand. Still haven’t found a downpipe water diverter yet, but it appears they do that particular job differently here, more on that probably later.

I did however find this which seems an interesting idea.

patio-cleaner

I’m torn between thinking it’s a novel idea or that it wouldn’t work in practice. On the outset it seems good, no more stooping down, a nice long handle but how long would it last? I’m quite brutal with tools at times. I expect a lot in terms of endurance and I have found with alarming regularity (hating to sound rather too much like my father) but they don’t seem to make them like they used to.

I in general don’t go in for nostalgic views of the past. When people bang on about how you could leave your door unlocked at night or that the kids were better off in their day I feel at pains to do a bit of a reality check. There is, contrary to popular belief no army of burglars that come out when the sun sets to try on every front door in the town just on the off-chance that someone left it unlocked. I’m sure that I could happily get away with leaving my front-door unlocked at night and be at no more risk of being robbed than anyone else, it is simply a question of luck or not as the case may be that my house or anyone else’s gets targeted.

What it does say is not that the risks are specifically higher but our fears of the risks are higher, however that’s a topic for another post one day. Quick note on it being better for children in the olden days. Well as far as I can tell, if you’re a child these days, your chances of dying in the first few years in modern Britain are next to nothing. Mark this against infant mortality rates of 20% less than a century ago (my own mother lost two siblings rather less than a century ago) combined with the safety of knowing that you’re not going to be sent off down a pit at the age of 14 or even younger in some cases then I think the kids today get quite a good deal.

However, back to the subject in hand, the quality of tools. I know people who’ve picked up various garden tools from the likes of B&Q and broken them within a few weeks of work, in particular forks. Personally myself, I happen to be the proud owner of a garden fork which was my fathers. I have no idea of it’s age but easily more than forty years seems reasonable. It’s made of forged steel, none of that shiny stainless weak stuff and it was wholly built in England. I think the wooden stay is either oak or ash but it’s as strong as steel and shows no sign of giving up anywhere in the near future despite all the demands that have been put on it.

Returning to this patio cleaner. It is essentially a wire brush that is fixed to a pole. The brush can be loosened presumably to turn it around when it’s either bent or worn down. I’d be tempted to give it a try if it would fit in my suitcase, after all it’s not expensive but sadly it won’t fit, nor can I find one where you can just buy the head of the tool, I must hunt further.

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