Category Archives: Gadgets

iPhone 3G S Thoughts

Upgraded from an iPhone 3G (OS 3.0) a few days ago, which I’d been very pleased with for the whole year I had it. Paid for the 3G S in full, as I wasn’t due an upgrade from O2.

Like many other reviewers, I’m simultaneously impressed and underwhelmed. In the end it looks and feels like an iPhone 3G, but it also comes with some very useful improvements.

The video and camera auto focus are very nice additions. The video is roughly the same quality as a Flip Ultra, although I don’t think the microphone has quite the same range as a Flip (haven’t done a side by side test though). It’s going to do a good job of capturing social or family events, where a proper camcorder would be overkill.

The photos are a big improvement over the 3G (I did a side by side test for comparison purposes); much sharper, and the touch controls for focus/exposure are brilliant.

The speed isn’t a big deal on simple apps, but it’s night and day on 3D or data heavy apps apps. Google Earth, Evernote, and Spotlight are completely transformed. Safari is noticeably faster too.

Often with the 3G, the phone would stutter occasionally as it was presumably running some background task while dealing with your input, and that’s much less frequent on the 3G S.

App load times are much better too – 1/2 to 1/3 of the old time. Obviously you notice this more on the bigger apps. 3D games also run significantly better.

The compass is nice, but so far it’s just a novelty. Hopefully some 3rd party apps will start to make good use of it soon.

Basically, it’s an upgrade for power users, but probably a waste of time for most 3G users (at least at £200-300 for the upgrade). The harder you push the phone, the bigger the difference in performance. Hopefully this will bode well for future apps.

For new contracts, the choice is easy; the 3GS (16Gb or 32Gb) is a much better deal than the 8Gb 3G, despite the 3G’s lower price.

2008 – A year of hardware updates

After quite a few years of relative inactivity, I went a bit mad this year and bought lots of new hardware. I thought I’d jot down a few notes on my purchases in case anyone is interested.

8 core Apple Mac Pro 08 with 10Gb of RAM

My new main desktop machine, purchased in February 08 to take over from my Mac mini. Massive overkill for most things, but it’s great to be able to run Mac OS X, Windows and Linux on one box without running out of resources.

Went with the optional 8800GT graphics card and WiFi, but did the RAM upgrade and disk upgrades myself to save money.

I never seem to max out the processors, but run a few different VMware sessions, added to Safari’s usual memory leaks, and 10Gb of RAM actually seems quite tight. Will be upgrading to 16Gb when I spot a good deal on some 2Gb DIMMS.

Rather than doing a RAID setup, I went with a single 750Gb SATA disk, a Seagate ST3750330AS, which had a 5 year warranty compared to the usual 3 year warranty on most hard drives. Hopefully that means the disk is pretty high quality. The 750Gb main drive is backed up to a 1Tb Western Digital disk configured for Time Machine. Note the different drive manufacturer (in case one manufacturer has problems), and I went for one of their 5 year warrantied server class drives, the WD1000FYPS.

Then to make things safe against natural disaster, I have a pair of 750Gb Iomega Ultramax external disks backed up by Carbon Copy Cloner. This pair of drives are alternately rotated out of my house to another location, so I have a safe backup offsite.

Dell Vostro 1500 with 3Gb of RAM

This is my workhorse laptop. Came with Windows XP (don’t want Vista on a basic laptop), now dual boots XP and Ubuntu. 1.4Ghz Core2Duo and Intel graphics, so nothing too powerful, but no compatibility issues.

Had a Vostro 1400 for a while with Nvidia graphics, but ebayed it when the recent Nvidia overheating problems were announced.

The 1500 is pretty heavy, and the 15″ screen doesn’t have the best viewing angles, but it’s very solid, and was very cheap for the build quality. 3Gb of RAM gives me enough space to run a VMware session fairly comfortably, should I need to develop on the move.

Samsung NC10 netbook

Dumped my Nokia N800 this year, having bought an iPhone 3G. Picked up an MSI Wind, which I really loved, but the battery life was pretty appalling.

Ebayed the Wind and picked up a Samsung NC10 (upgraded to 160Gb). Amazing battery life (6-7 hours), and great build quality for the money.

Only downsides are the screen and touchpad aren’t quite as nice as those on the Wind.

This little machine can do 90% of the things a Macbook Air can do, for less than a quarter of the cost. Runs Firefox and Google Chrome very well indeed. Prefer Firefox as the fullscreen F11 mode is a godsend on netbooks.

NEC 1970NXp with Neo-Flex stand

Picked this old NEC monitor up of eBay very cheaply. It’s an MVA panel, not like the usual TN panels found on cheap monitors. Attached an Egrotron Neo-Flex stand, rotated it through 90 degrees, and it makes a great portrait monitor for reading RSS feeds and documents.

Dell 2709w monitor

After a brief romance with a 30″ monitor, I decided to replace my old Dell 2405FPW with a 26″ or 27″ display, as it would easier to read with tired eyes (yes, I should spend less time on the computer). Initially bought a Hazro 26″, but ran into lots of quality issues with that, so went for a Dell 2709w instead.

No entirely convinced with the touch sensitive buttons, but the display itself is great. A 27″ display at 1920×1200 turns out to be perfect for my eyes.

My 10 Favourite iPhone Apps that you’ve never heard of

In no particular order:

Cocktails – The typography and design of this drinks app are gorgeous. I especially like the way the page colour reflects the recipe age

iSSH – For anyone who manages remote servers, this SSH client is an essential download

PuzzleManiak – 15 great puzzles in one affordable package. Loopy is my personal favourite

Shufflepuck – Great presentation, and the skill level is set just right. Better than any of the bowling games I’ve played

Wings – While nowhere near as sophisticated as X-Plane, I just love the chilled atmosphere of Wings. Reminds me of Pilotwings 64

Zone WarriorElite, meets X-Wing, meets the iPhone

Darkness – Best of the sunrise and sunset apps that I’ve tried

Locly – Good local information, but I especially like the local Twitters

GeoPedia – For some reason, this has much more comprehensive coverage than the other geographic Wikipedia apps (at least where I live)

iLaugh – I know it’s only a front end to a website, but this is very well executed, and sometimes it’s just nice to have funny stories or jokes available at one click

My 10 Favourite Popular iPhone Apps

You’ve probably heard of these, but they’ve taken up longterm residence on my iPhone 3G. In no particular order:

Google Earth – No explanation should be needed. It’s as near to the desktop version as you could reasonably expect

Twitterific – It’s free and it does Twitter beautifully

Camerabag – Turn the poor quality iPhone camera into an arty camera. I especially like the 1962 filter

Gazette – The best Google Reader app I have tried. Currently prefer it over Byline, as Gazette allows for browsing of individual feeds

MotionX Poker – This simple poker dice game is executed absolutely perfectly. A great app to demo the iPhone, and it has an addictive one more go quality

Galcon – Super fast real time strategy game. The videos out there don’t do it justice, it must be played to be appreciated

ToppleBoom Blox in reverse. Needs no further recommendation

eBay – eBay has a horrid website design. This app is cleaner and more focused than the parent website

Wikipanion – Just edges Kiwi as my favourite Wikipedia reader

FizzWeather – Beautiful and detailed weather app with good UK coverage

iPhone 3G Thoughts

I’ve had an iPhone 3G 16Gb for about 3 months now, and have been meaning to post about it for ages. Rather than writing a detailed review, which has been done to death, I’m going to focus on my general impressions, and some less obvious points.

Stability: Firmware 2.0 was absolutely terrible, especially if you installed many 3rd party apps. Firmware 2.1 has been rock solid for me. Fingers crossed that 2.2 preserves the stability.

3G: Reception isn’t that great (not as good as my N95), and the handover between 3G and GPRS is slow, so I turn 3G off unless I’m somewhere that I know has a strong 3G signal. Not ideal, but more acceptable than I would have expected

3rd Party Apps: The range, quality and low price of 3rd party iPhone apps has blown me away. Yes, I wish there were less restrictions on the apps, but overall purchase and upgrade experience through the iTunes store, makes every other software purchasing experience look like something from a previous century.

Battery life: Very variable. Can be pretty good when mostly in standby, but heavy app use can kill it. Running the battery flat once a month (before charging) seems to increase the battery life.

Basic phone usage: Unusually (in my experience) for a smartphone, the call quality (at least for the caller) is very good.

Camera: Macro focus would be very helpful. More important than extra megapixels.

Gaming: The iPhone is an absolutely killer games machine. It’s a genuine competitor to the Nintendo DS, but for me, having multiple games on one device, all very cheap or free, and built into my phone, is just amazing. I defy anyone to be bored with an iPhone.

Media Player: It’s great, especially the YouTube integration, but for just playing music, I actually prefer the simpicity and solidity of my old 1G iPod nano.

App management: Not good enough. Both iTunes and the iPhone don’t cope well if you add lots of 3rd party apps. Managing and navigating through tens or hundreds of apps needs to be improved.

Overall: The iPhone 3G is definitely the best phone or PDA I’ve ever owned. I loved my old N95, but the apps on the iPhone take the smartphone experience to a whole new level.

30″ Monitor Thoughts

I’ve always been a fan of large monitors, and until recently my experience has always been that bigger is better.

I’ve had a Dell 2405FPW (24″) for several years now, and it’s a big improvement for me, even over the 20″ screen of my old iMac.

With the recent release of Dell’s new 3008WFP (more features than just about any monitor out there), I was recently tempted into upgrading to a 30″ monitor. 30″ monitors are still very expensive, but as someone who stares at his computer screen for about 10 hours a day, I’d be prepared to pay the premium, if I got a similar improvement to previous size increases.

Once the monitor arrived, I was simultaneously impressed with physical build quality, and disappointed with a couple of faults in my particular unit. Having had a couple of hours to test it out, the monitor is being returned for a refund, rather than a replacement; partly for the faults, but mostly because it’s not the improvement I hoped for. Key to this is the fact that the pixels are significantly smaller on the 30″ screen than a 24″ ( 100.63 pixels per inch vs 94.34 pixels per inch). That makes standard sized font somewhat uncomfortable to read. Use this helpful calculator to compute the pixels per inch for different screen sizes.

I do really like the extra screen pixels, but as most of my usage is text oriented (surfing, reading and coding), I can’t compromised on reading comfort.

Where a 30″ is better:

  • Photos – they look gorgeous
  • Google Earth – again, gorgeous
  • HD video editing – didn’t try this, but the extra screen area allows for 1080p videos plus toolbars etc
  • People with much better than average vision. My eyes are slightly better than 20:20 with glasses (confirmed by an optician two weeks ago). If you’re a fighter pilot, or a bird of prey, buy a 30″ screen. If you’ve got the vision for it, large spreadsheets and long documents will look much better

Where a 24″ is better (for those with normal vision):

  • Anything text based – most user interfaces assume a certain size of text, and whilst you can usually up the font size, things rarely scale without compromise (buttons, graphics not scaling etc)
  • Web development – Scaling up the fonts for readability usually distorts the layout of web pages to some degree, as images don’t normally scale. Whilst I do test the impact of larger fonts on my site, it seems like bad practice to develop at font sizes other than the browser default
  • Gaming – Much more support for 1920×1200 than 2560×1600, and less strain on graphics cards too

It’s a pity there are no commonly used resolutions between 1920×1200, and 2560×1600. Something like 2160×1350 in a 27″ or 28″ screen would probably be perfect for me. Extra resolution, without having to squint, or pretend you’re in an IMAX cinema.

Alternatively, I need to wait for the world to move to resolution independent user interfaces, but that doesn’t look like it’s happening any time soon.

Interesting things from 2007

In the spirit of all the other 2007 lists out there, and to try to make up for my recent lack of posts, this is going to set of eclectic lists of things I should have mentioned during 2007.

Gadgets I liked:

  • Nokia N95 – still love it, especially with the v20 firmware, and recent apps such as Google Mobile Maps with GPS support, and the emTube video player. By far the best phone/PDA I’ve ever owned
  • Xbox 360 Elite – So many good games this year on the Xbox 360, and since I got a good deal on a new Elite, it was well worth upgrading from my old Premium to get the larger disk and HDMI video output
  • Topfield TF5800 PVR with the MyStuff interface – I’ve had this over a year, but it keeps getting better and better. Massively customisable, and it allows the download of recordings, ready for backup onto DVD with no loss of quality
  • Nintendo Wii – Just over a year old, overhyped and short of games, but worth it for parties, and the quality games are starting to come. Can someone please do a better Golf game than Tiger Woods 08?
  • Fuji F31fd camera – Got this at a bargain price to replace my old Fuji F10. Wonderful picture quality for the size. No compact I’ve seen comes close in less than perfect light. Fuji should stop wasting their time on higher megapixel cameras, and just offer an upgraded F31fd, with added RAW support, SD card slot, image stabilisation, histogram, and exposure bracketing. They could name their price
  • Sennheiser HD595 headphones – Not cheap, but so comfortable, and they sound great. By far best headphones I’ve ever owned
  • Sennheiser CX300 headphones – Cheap, and sound fantastic for the money. Great for train journeys
  • Mac mini (with Core 2) – This has been my main system for almost 6 months, as I’m waiting for a new Mac Pro to be released. I struggle with the 2Gb of RAM, but otherwise, it’s a fantastic desktop system; fast and super quiet. If Apple discontinue the Mac mini in the foreseeable future (as the rumours keep suggesting), without introducing a suitable replacement, they’re completely crazy
  • ASUS EEE PC – Don’t own one of these, but a friend does, and I’ve used it quite extensively. Love the price and the build quality. Firefox runs so much better than I thought it would. Release an updated version with a 9 inch screen, integrated bluetooth, and running the Xubuntu version of Hardy Heron, and ASUS will have my order in a heartbeat. A similar device with the lovely form factor of the Palm Foleo would be great too (just don’t copy the Foleo’s crippled software or internal hardware)
  • Joytech Tri-link HDMI switch – Affordable, nicely priced, and intelligently designed (with a nice IR extension cable). A painless way to add a couple of extra HDMI ports to my TV
  • Lenovo 3000 N200 – Purchased for my Aunt who was looking for a budget laptop. Available with XP (instead of Vista), came with 1Gb DIMM (instead of the usual 2x 512Mb), friendly system restore software (including backup to bootable DVD), and a Pentium Dual Core processor based on Intel’s modern Merom core (basically a slightly cut down Core2Duo). The build quality is better than most Dell’s I’ve experienced, and at £399, it was serious bargain. Added an extra 1Gb DIMM, and you can’t go wrong if you’re looking for a budget laptop.

Games I liked:

  • Portal – So clever, so funny, so short
  • Super Mario Galaxy – Nearly as inventive as Portal, but much bigger
  • Excite Truck – Best Wii game in the first half of 2007. A little too random at times, but plays like Sega Rally crossed with Stunt Car Racer
  • Forza Motorsport 2 – A little sterile, but so smooth and realistic. It’s an automotive sandbox, and I’ll be playing it for years. And yes, I do have a chipped Shadow Blue Golf GTI in the game 🙂
  • Endless Ocean – The most relaxing game ever invented. Animal Crossing under the sea, without the commitment to keep visiting every day
  • BioShock – Love the art and the architecture. The rest of the game is pretty good too
  • Sega Rally – Totally unrealistic, but so much fun. A pity that it didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved. Had the great track design that was always a feature of classic Sega coinops
  • Project Gotham Racing 4 – Just the right mix of fun and realism. So superficially similar to Forza, yet so different too. Which I prefer depends which day you ask me. Would love them to bring back the Edinburgh track from PGR2 as downloadable content
  • Call of Duty 4 – Best multiplayer game of the year. It’s like a tighter, more focussed version of Battlefield 2
  • Colin McRae: Dirt – This feels like Project Gotham of rallying to me. A lovely balance between fun and realism. It deserved more praise than it got. Extra bonus points for including the Pikes Peak Hillclimb too
  • SEGA Presents: Touch Darts – Bought this in preparation for a stag night I was going on, and it managed to help me appreciate a sport I previously knew almost nothing about. You don’t need to be a darts fan to appreciate this little gem

Software I liked:

  • Mac OS X Leopard – Nothing revolutionary, but since Tiger was pretty good, big changes weren’t needed. I love Spaces, Safari 3, Quick Look, and Time Machine
  • Safari 3 – Deserves an entry of its own. It’s now my favourite Mac browser (narrowly beating Camino). It seems to leak a little memory, but it’s fast and stable
  • Ubuntu – I seriously considered switching from Mac to Ubuntu this year. In the end, Leopard’s polish, and some of Ubuntu’s rough edges put me off, but given a choice between Windows and Ubuntu, Ubuntu wins hands down
  • Google Earth – A bigger time sink than Wikipedia, and that’s saying something. Love the new flight sim mode
  • TextMate – This has been my main text editor for over two years. I probably don’t even use 10% of its features, but even so, I’ve more than had my money’s worth
  • VideoReDo – Although it’s a Windows only program, this powerful MPEG2 editor is fantastic for chopping the ads out of recordings made on my Topfield PVR. The new TVSuite version even authors and burns the DVD for you
  • Google Maps on N95 – GPS support, the new My Location feature, and high speed data over HSDPA make this a tremendously useful tool
  • emTube – Brilliant YouTube app for S60 phones
  • VMware Fusion – Windows, Mac and Linux together on one machine; wonderful. Instead of multiple machines in my office, I can just buy one powerful Mac, and host anything else I need inside VMware Fusion. Brilliant for testing new OS installs too.


  • Internet Explorer 7 – Fixes lots of IE6 bugs, but introduces lots of new issues, along with a new and particularly horrid user interface. If it had replaced IE6 more quickly, it would have been better, but for now it’s just another broken browser to support
  • Firefox 2 on the Mac – I want to love it, but despite many clean installs, it’s just not as stable as Firefox 1.5 was. I don’t care about new features right now, just please improve the stability
  • DRM – Some positive movements this year, but not enough. There’s no future in providing a worse service to paying customers than freeloaders
  • Apple’s treatment of its customers – Bricking iPhones, expensive ringtones, no Mac Pro upgrade, no mid range desktop Mac, expensive hardware upgrade pricing (insulting RAM prices etc), censoring legitimate discussions on your support forums. Sort it out, or I may have to reconsider defecting to Ubuntu
  • The Sony PS3 – The lack of games, inept handling of the press, loss of backwards compatibility, confusing hardware variations, etc…
  • Windows Vista – What were Microsoft doing for 5 years? XP with some extra eye candy shouldn’t have taken so long, and should have worked better. I’m recommending everyone I know to stick with XP, or move to Linux or the Mac. This XP review sums it up very well
  • Palm Foleo – The physical form factor was so right, but the crippled internal hardware and software were so wrong. Add in the high price, and Palm were right to can it. Combine the best bits of the Foleo and the EEE PC, and you’d be onto a winner
  • Windows Product Activation – I’m happy to pay for a legitimate Windows licence, but I don’t want to be treated like a potential criminal just because I reconfigure my machines more often than is usual. Virtualisation makes this even annoying. I had real trouble getting a single Boot Camp install of Windows XP to validate in both Boot Camp and VMware. One OS install, one physical machine, but I had to fiddle around with mac addresses, and call Microsoft several times to get this working. Not a good experience for a paying customer, who just wants to test websites on Windows (for the benefit of Microsoft’s other customers). And as IE7 isn’t available for Windows 2000, that’s not an option either. Any more problems and I’m moving to Wine

UK iPhone Launch

Quick thoughts on the UK iPhone launch:


  • The contract is 18 months, not 24 as some had suggested
  • Including the Cloud connectivity is very clever. It partially compensates for the lack of 3G
  • The included data plan fair usage limits of roughly 1400 web pages a day translates to about 0.5-2Gb a month (depended on the web page size they’re assuming). That’s competitive with T-Mobile and 3’s data tariffs


  • The tariffs (£35 to £55) are too expensive, given the phone costs £269 and it’s an 18 month contract. They should have offered £25 to £45, or at worst £29.99 to £49.99
  • No 3G. Despite the WiFi bundle, this is a big deal. Steve Jobs is wrong about the tradeoff they’re making of battery life vs data speed
  • The killer quote was from O2 regarding EDGE coverage: “By launch we’ll be north of 30% and build from there”. EDGE is slow enough. If that coverage is going to be patchy, it means relying on GPRS. Oh dear…

So a bit of a mixed bag, but not enough to tempt me away from my N95. I wait the iPhone 2 with interest

Disappointed in the iPod touch

For me, Apple’s new iPod touch is like selling a Ferrari for $20,000, but only installing a fuel tank with a 2 mile range.

It’s such a great device, but the lack of Bluetooth kills it dead for me. I wouldn’t mind, but it’s such a silly omission.

Living in England (rather than San Francisco), the world outside my house isn’t blanketed by free WiFi. If the iPod touch had Bluetooth, I could connect it to the web via HSDPA through my N95. Without that feature, Safari on the iPod is only useful within my home.

I’m heartbroken that Apple have come so close to a must have device, but have blown it for the sake of a cheap Bluetooth chipset. And it’s not as if there’s a partner like AT&T to blame.

p.s. If you just want a media player, or you live in San Francisco, get your order in now and join the inevitable waiting list

Upgrading my Mac mini Core Solo to a Core 2 Duo

For almost 2.5 years, my main desktop computer has been a 20 inch iMac G5 (1.5Gb of RAM), running Mac OS X Tiger. It’s been a great machine, but for quite some time I’ve been struggling with its relatively slow CPU and the 20 inch screen.

I’ve been dreaming of a new Mac Pro with OS X Leopard, dual Harpertown processors (8 cores in total), and a 30 inch screen. No such beast has yet materialised, but I was starting to get desperate. Then I came up with a plan:

  • Remove my Mac mini from its home in the living room (to be temporarily replaced by a laptop)
  • Upgrade my Mac mini from a 1.5Ghz Core Solo, with 1Gb of RAM and a 60Gb disk, to a 1.83 Ghz Core 2 Duo, with 2Gb of RAM, and a 160Gb disk
  • Use the upgraded Mac mini as my new desktop (with my Dell 2405FPW monitor), and sell my old G5 iMac
  • Upgrade the Mac mini to Leopard on release
  • When Apple release a new machine that I want, return the Mac mini to my living room, with the benefit of its upgraded specification

So far the plan has worked out very well, and some interesting points emerged from the experience:

  • I opted to install the Intel T5600 processor. I wanted a Core 2 Duo as they are 64bit (unlike the Core Duos), and seem to perform significantly better than the old Core Duos. The T5600 supports Intel VT, unlike the slower T5500, and the only thing it misses is the slightly larger caches on the faster Core 2 Duo chips. Apparently this has a negligible effect on performance. Also, at 1.83GHz, I was comfortable that heat wouldn’t be an issue
  • Mac minis are not designed to be opened. It’s the most fiddly PC building job I’ve ever done; I managed to break a thin plastic cable clip, and didn’t manage to get things working again (with the aid of insulating tape) for several hours. I’m never opening the Mac mini again
  • The upgraded mini feels much quicker than my old G5 (it’s supposed to be twice as quick, but it feels like more than that). Even the GMA950 graphics card isn’t a problem for me. Expose runs beautifully, and that’s my main graphics heavy application. I no longer feel in a hurry to upgrade to a Mac Pro
  • The mini is super silent as a desktop. It can be heard, but only just
  • My Dell 24 inch screen is much nicer than the 20 inch screen on my old G5. Maybe I don’t need a 30 inch screen after all?
  • Two days before I rebuilt the mini (but after I’d ordered the parts), Apple upgraded the Mac mini to Core 2 Duos, with the lower specced machine using the same T5600 processor as I chose for my upgrade. So my machine is almost an official specification. And the entire cost of the upgrade (including £75 on eBay for the processor), was about the same as Apple would have charged to upgrade their new base Mac mini to 2Gb of RAM and a 160Gb hard disk (I went for a Hitachi disk, in case anyone is interested)
  • Being an Intel machine, I now had the option of running Windows in Boot Camp or virtualised. More on this in another post, but in brief, this is a killer feature for me
  • Moving your files and preferences to a new Mac is a much nicer experience than migrating between Windows PCs. Just copy across your home directory, and that’s pretty much it