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Chromecast 2 review

I can remember that I watched dvd’s on portable dvd player in bed. After that I switched to my notebook when I got a bed table (one of those on wheels that stick out over the bed) and quickly bought a tv and media player. Over time I bought a set top box for digital tv with a hard drive (so I could record) and last year I bought a blu-ray player which could also be used to watch Netflix. Switching between them was a bit of a hassle (although it got easier when I got a HDMI switch) and the blu-ray player was really slow with loading Netflix.

Last week I bought the new Google Chromecast, hoping that it was quicker with Netflix and with the added bonus of being able to play YouTube videos. I had my doubts about practicality; wouldn’t the battery of my tablet or phone go down faster and I wasn’t sure how I would like not having a dedicated remote control. But since the little device was only €39 I thought it was worth the chance.

The first version of the Chromecast looked like a big USB stick, that you inserted in an HDMI port on your tv. From what I’ve read some people had problems with it when the HDMI port was awkwardly place and there wasn’t enough space for the Chromecast. This new version looks like a small hockey puck, it’s connected to the HDMI plug by a short cable. Like the previous version it also comes with a USB cable and a USB adapter for power. If your tv has a (free) USB port you can plug the cable into it, or you can use the adapter.

I got it on Saturday and in the evening I set it up, which only took minutes (looking up my wifi password took longest). And that night I happily switched between watching YouTube videos and Netflix. On Sunday morning I disconnected the blu-ray player, leaving it in case I ever want to watch a dvd or blu-ray.

On Sunday I also checked out various websites to see what the must-have apps are that you can’t do without when you’ve got a Chromecast. Most of them mention an app called Plex. It’s an app that you install on the device you use with your Chromecast, in my case my tablet, and then you install the app either on your computer or your NAS (if it’s powerful enough). You let it index the media files you want to be able to access (videos, music, photographs) and you can stream it from  your computer or NAS to your Chromecast.

This meant I could also unplug my media player. I bought a new USB 3 external hard drive, copied all my media files onto it and now I can play all my films and tv series on my Chromecast. I just have to make sure my computer doesn’t go to sleep. If you want to use a NAS to play your files you have to take into account that you’ll need a more powerful (and more expensive) one. The Chromecast can’t play a lot of video formats, if you play something that isn’t supported Plex will convert it. This isn’t a problem for a computer, but a simple NAS might not be powerful enough (on the Plex website is a list of which NAS are supported and which quality videos those are able to convert).

As an added bonus Plex looks very sleek and it makes it very easy to find the film or episode you want to watch. When loading your media library you have to choose which folders you have save your tv series in and which you use for films. It automatically downloads the film poster and a description. Tv series are automatically get subdivided into seasons. You can also use Plex to play your media on  your tablet and if you get the Plex Pass (subscription or a lifetime pass) you can even download media from your server/computer to your phone or tablet for offline viewing.

I was afraid for quick battery drainage, but that fear was unfounded. You use your phone or tablet to tell the Chromecast what to play and the Chromecast takes over whatever your streaming, it doesn’t go through your phone or tablet. I also don’t mind using my tablet as remote control. It’s easy and it offers a lot more options than a conventional remote control.

There are two downsides to Chromecast. First of all, it doesn’t work if you haven’t got an internet connection. So if you go somewhere, e.g. on vacation, and you haven’t got internet or if it’s very slow you’re out of luck. Also, even if you want to use it on a network which redirects you to a website to log in (like in hotels) your out of luck. Which is why I decided to put all my media files on an external HDD. When I go on vacation and I know the Chromecast won’t work I take my external HDD and my small media player with me. That way I can still watch offline.

Second, the Chromecast only remembers the last wifi network you logged into. Our home is big with several thick walls. I’m one story and two thick wall away from the nearest wifi repeater and I’m lucky to get a weak signal. I do have an ethernet connection and I created my own wifi network with the help of an access point. I did name my network differently than the wifi network downstairs. If I hook my Chromecast up to the tv in the livingroom or in the store I have to enter the wifi password for that network. When I take it upstairs with me I have to enter my own password again. I can understand why Google did this; they want to motivate people to buy more Chromecasts. However, it would have been nice if it was able to store a limited number of networks, 3 or 5, so you can more easily take it with you to friends, family or work.

Kindle Paperwhite 2: first impressions

I always loved the idea of having an ereader with build in light. When Amazon announced their first Paperwhite I was very excited and couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. Luckily, Amazon release their Kindle first in the US before the rest of the world because after reading the reviews I decided not to get one. There were a lot of problems with the screen; pinholes (holes in one of the layers, resulting in bright light shining out) and colour blobs (green, blue, yellow and pink patches on the screen). In 2013 Amazon released the second version of the Paperwhite (PW2), but again there were problems with the

In September Amazon announced the Kindle Voyage. Which didn’t only have a build in light, it also came with page turn sensors (which all the previous touch screen Kindle didn’t have) and some other nice options but it had a very hefty price;  €199. This time I decided to wait for the reviews. Again there seemed to be screen problems, this time the top is yellow whilst the bottom is blue-ish. But also there are a lot of reports of Kindle Voyages freezing and having to be exchanged. The reports on the updated PW2 were good. Amazon secretly upped the storage from 2gb to 4gb and the screen problems seem to be mostly in the past.

When Amazon opened their disappointing Dutch webstore it also resulted in us being able to order Kindles from Germany or the UK, a lot cheaper than having to order it from the US. That same week I was on vacation and the apartment didn’t have very good lighting. At night I had to move a floor lamp next to the sofa so I could read on my Kindle 4. After seeing that Amazon.de had the PW2 on offer for €99 I decided to get that one instead of a Voyage. Last week I ordered it and on Friday it arrived. And I love it.

Screen & lighting
One of the most important things on an ereader is the screen. You don’t want any pinholes, dust between the layers, uneven lighting or colour blobs that distract you from your reading. The text is very sharp and mine doesn’t have any colour blobs or pinholes. If I look very carefully I can see a bit of spotlighting at the bottom of the screen when I have the light on. You can see cones of light where the LEDs are at the bottom of the screen, resulting in slightly darker triangles between the LEDs. I had expected this and I only see if if I have the light at a certain level, turning it up or down helps reduce it. I can live with this.
The screen of my PW2 is also a lot whiter than that of my Kindle 4, which was more sepia toned. When the light is on at a level you can see it it has a cooler hue (this differs from Kindle to Kindle).

Font
Whereas my Kindle 4 only had three different fonts to choose from the PW2 has six options, but the same three settings for line spacing and margins and eight for font size. Although I love Kobo’s options when it comes to font settings after setting it up the first time I hardly ever changed it. I don’t want the text to fill the full screen, like many people do. I find it much more readable with margins (I use the widest margins) and a bit of space between the line (middle setting).

Touch screen
Although I haven’t used my Kobo Aura HD since May I still have to get used to the Kindle touch screen, where to touch to go back (on the left side of the screen, the area is narrower than on the Aura HD) and to pull up the menu. But everything is in a very logical place. It’s also a lot faster than the Aura HD, selecting a word to look it up in the dictionary is easy, as is selecting text to save it. It’s a lot more precise. The Aura HD had an IR touch screen, so it will respond to anything that touches the screen. The PW2 has a capacitive touch screen, which means that if you got some dust or crumbs on your screen you want to get rid off you can swipe it off with a bit of cloth without have a menu pop-up or a page turn. I also  love the feel of the screen, which is very paper-like and seems less sensitive to fingerprints than the screen of the Aura HD.

Software
So far my PW2 has been as stable as my other Kindles. No crashes, reboots or freezes. Besides the dictionary you can now also look up words in Wikipedia (wifi must be on) and if it’s enabled on the book you’re reading there is a feature called X-Ray. Where you can look up names, see how often this person is mentioned in the book. But also places and other things. With the latest update Wordwise is introduced. When switched on it gives short definitions of difficult words between the lines over the word. I have this switched off. Also new is the Family Library, where you can link different accounts and share your books. There is also GoodReads for those living in the US and Canada.
What I do use, often is Page Flip. You have to open the menu by tapping at the top of the screen, then on the bottom, above the chapter title is an arrow upwards. If you press that a new window pops up where you can scroll through the book without losing your place. It’s great to look up a map or drawing. I also discovered that when you choose the Go To option in the menu there are now page numbers next to the chapter titles. This makes it easy to check how many pages you have to read to finish your chapter.
At the bottom of the screen you can see how far you are in the book. By tapping the lower left corner you can select different views: page number, time left in chapter, time left in book, location and nothing. The first four options also display the percentage of pages read in the lower right corner.

Miscelaneous
Although the PW2 weighs more than the Kindle 4 it isn’t too heavy and feels like a good quality device. The Kobo Aura HD always felt a little too plasticy to me. The on and off button has a nice clicky feel to it. The one on my Kindle 4 never really clicked and is, at times, unresponsive. However, if you buy the right case you hardly ever need to use the power button because the PW2 can be switched on and off by the case if there’s a little magnet in it (like many tablets and other ereaders).
I bought the official Amazon case for the PW2, in black. It’s an okay case, but I would have like the front to be thicker to protect the screen better. I think I’ll end up ordering an Oberon case for it. Which is a lot heavier and bulkier than the official case but, in my opinion, offers more protection and is a lot prettier.

All in all I’m very happy with my PW2 and I’m glad I waited for so long to buy it. The lighting makes up for the absence of page turn buttons. Now, if only Amazon improves their Dutch webstore (wishlist, payment by iDeal, etc) I would happily switch my account to it.

Review: Kindle 4

I’ve had my Kindle 4 now for just over two weeks and I’m very glad I bought it. Although there was nothing wrong with my Kindle Keyboard the Kindle 4 (K4) is smaller and lighter and thus easier to carry around. When it was announced I had planned on buying the Kindle Paperwhite as soon as it was available in the Netherlands, either through Amazon.com or, when it opened, Amazon.nl. I was glad I wasn’t able to pre-order because of the “colour blob” problem. Depending on you level of colour blindness you might see pinkish, greenish or blueish blobs on the screen of your Paperwhite and Amazon doesn’t seem to be able to solve the problem. I like the idea of a build in light but I know I would be very annoyed if my Kindle had the colour blobs.

However, I did want to get a new Kindle and the choices that were left were the Kindle Touch and the Kindle 4. Although I like the idea of a touch screen I had read that the screen of the Kindle Touch was less sharp, probably because of the touch screen layer, plus I like to have physical page turn buttons (even with a touch screen). Around the time of the Paperwhite’s release Amazon also released a black version of their Kindle 4, although they deny that there was a hardware update people noticed that the screen is a lot better than the older Kindle 4 in silver. This made the choice easy to go for the Kindle 4.

Screen
As I said before, I was very happy with my choice. The screen of the K4 is clearer than the screen of my Kindle Keyboard (KK). I think it’s partially due to the screen of the K4 having a lighter, colder hue than the brownish hue the screen of the KK’s got.

Keyboard and buttons
One of the attractions of the KK is the keyboard, which is very handy when you make a lot of notes. It does, however, add to the size of the KK. The K4’s got an onscreen keyboard and you have the 4-way buttons to select the letter/number/symbol you need which can be cumbersome if you use it to make notes. Since I only used the keyboard to type in the names of the catagories I make to sort my books I can live with a somewhat cumbersome onscreen keyboard. If you regularly make notes I would advice to get one of the Kindles with a touch screen, that should make it a lot easier than using the 4-way button.

One thing I did have to used to was the page turn buttons on the left and right side of the Kindle. I was used to the wider buttons of the KK and found the narrower ones on the K4 hard to press when I first got it.

The KK had a slider to switch the Kindle on and off. The K4 has a button you have to press. I like this better since it seems to me to be a lot more durable than a sliding switch.

System
Compared to my KK the K4 is also a lot quicker, not only with page turns but also loading books, starting up/restarting the Kindle and switching screens in the home screen.

One thing that does annoy me is the implementation of switching wifi on and off. I don’t care that they’ve renamed it to “airplane mode” but it’s much harder to switch it on and off than with previous Kindles (the Touch and Paperwhite also have this problem). Before you could switch wifi on and off wherever you were; inside a book, on the home screen, etc. Now you have to go to the settings page, by going to the home page, using the menu button to go to the settings page where you can switch airplane mode on and off. Not very practical when you just want to switch on wifi to download a book.

Compared to the KK has half the space to put books on, 2GB instead of 4GB. Amazon likes you to use their cloud system. I don’t use the cloud system but I never put all my books on my Kindle and delete when I’ve finished one.

Interestingly Amazon contradicts itself when it comes to battery life of the K4. On the international order page of the K4 it lists up to 8 weeks with wifi off and on the page of the Paperwhite and the American page of the K4 it lists battery life as 4 weeks. The KK is listed as up to 8 weeks, as is the Paperwhite. To me it the K4 seems to have a better battery life than my KK, which is probably due to the older battery of the KK not holding it’s charge as well as a new battery. But even if the battery life is shorter than of other Kindles I can live with that, it’s easy enough to charge it overnight.

Weight and casing

I love how small and light the K4 is. The difference is also due of the different cases. For my KK I had an Oberon case, which are beautiful but add quite some weight to the Kindle. For the K4 I ordered Amazon’s case for it (the non-lighted one) and although it doesn’t add much size and weight I don’t like it because after two weeks it already has scuff marks on it (and I haven’t carried it around much in my handbag) and there isn’t a system to keep the case close in my bag. I use an elastic band to keep it closed in my bag so nothing can come in between the flap and the screen, damaging the screen. Eventhough an Oberon case is expensive and adds size and weight to the Kindle I’ve ordered one for my K4, I’d rather have a heavier and slightly bigger Kindle than a damaged screen. I like the K4 enough to invest $64 plus $35 shipping in a good case.

Review: Kindle 3 WiFi

It’s been four weeks since I’ve received my Kindle 3 WiFi, since receiving it I’ve read over 10 books and a couple of short stories on it so I think it’s time for a review. The Kindle isn’t my first ereader, a year and a half ago I got a Sony Touch PRS600. Although it was still working fine there were some reasons I decided to upgrade.

Screen
The main reason why I wanted to upgrade was the new screen. Both the new Kindles and the new Sony models use the new Pearl screen which is much clearer than the previous generation screens. The PRS600 had a touch screen which was an extra layer on top of the eInk screen, this meant the screen was also more reflective and less clear than readers with the same screen without the touch screen layer on top of it. The casing PRS600 wasn’t completely closed which meant that on my reader several annoying dust particles had managed to get stuck between the eInk and touch screen layer, which was very annoying. Sony’s current models do not use the extra touch screen layer so it should be the same as the Kindle, later I will explain why I chose Kindle over Sony.

I really love the new Pearl screen, the background is a little whiter, the letters seem to be a bit darker and the screen has a matte finish which doesn’t reflect a lot of light. On the Kindle you also have the choice of 3 fonts: regular (serif), condensed (serif) or sans serif; small, medium or large line spacing; fewer, fewest or default words per line; and 8 font sizes. There is also a hidden menu where you can set if you would like to have the lines left or fully justified. I especially like the choice of fonts and after some experimenting I found that I prefer the condensed font.

Ease of use
One of the reasons why I hesitated to buy a Kindle 3 was the lack of touch screen. On my Sony I regularly looked up words in the dictionary by double tapping on a word. I was also used to navigate using the touch screen. I doubted having to use buttons to navigate and use the dictionary was practical. Luckily, the Dixons at the airport had a Kindle on display, after playing with it for a while I saw that despite it not having a touch screen the navigation and looking up words is very easy. To look up a word you scroll to it using the 5 way navigation button, when you get to the word the first 2 lines of the dictionary definition pop up at the bottom or top of the screen, if you want to read the full entry just click on the enter button, to go back to the book press the “back” button. I also love it that you can use the dictionary as a stand alone, from the menu you can open it and search for a word, which wasn’t possible with the PRS600, although I think it is possible with later models. The Kindle comes with 2 dictionaries, and English and an American. If I remember correctly you can also buy other dictionaries if you want to.

Buying books is both easier and harder for the Kindle. Most ereaders use the ePub format, books in this format are widely available in online stores. The Kindle uses the Mobi format with their own type of DRM (actually, they have two types of DRM), there are stores that sell Mobi books but if they are DRM protected (like BooksOnBoard) you have to register your Kindle with them. If the books aren’t DRM protected (Smashwords) than you can just download them and transfer them to your Kindle when connecting it to your PC with a USB cord. Buying from Amazon is very easy and you have two choices how to shop. You can do it on your computer, you find the book you want and click to buy it and send it directly to your Kindle, you only have to switch on the WiFi or 3G on your Kindle and it automatically downloads the book. You can also shop directly from your Kindle, but you have to keep in mind that having WiFi or 3G switched on and surfing the store (many page refreshes) drains you battery. Amazon also stores the books you bought from them, so if you have deleted them from your reader but want them again you can easily download them.

My biggest problem was what to do with books I’ve already bought, they are all ePubs and the Kindle can’t read that format. Non-DRM protected books can be converted to Mobi format using a program such as Calibre. DRM protected book, however, can’t be converted. This doesn’t mean you cannot read them on your Kindle, there are ways to “liberate” your books from DRM, both ePubs and Mobis. If you like to back up your Amazon bought ebooks on your computer you might want to consider liberating them. Many people who had a Kindle 2 ran into the problem that they couldn’t just upload their ebooks from their computer to their Kindle 3 because the ID changed, they had to download them one by one (Amazon doesn’t offer a bulk download option).

I really like how easy it is download books from Amazon, it might be a bit too easy. In the past weeks I’ve bought several free or cheap books, it’s just one click and it’s on your reader. You have to keep in mind, though, that some books might be cheaper somewhere else. A couple of days ago I discovered that two writers I like, Joseph Nassise and William Meikle, also offer several of their books on Smashwords for less than on Amazon.

Another thing I like about the Kindle is the option to sort my ebooks into “collections” (Sony ereaders also have this option). I make collections per genre and for book series, you can put a book into multiple collections. You can do this directly on your Kindle and it’s very easy (you have to have registered you Kindle with Amazon and connected your Kindle via WiFi or 3G with them before this option becomes available). There is also a plug-in available for Calibre, but each time you add or delete a new collection you have to reboot your Kindle, if, like me, you only put a couple of books per transfer on your reader it’s quicker to do it manually on you Kindle.

The Kindle 3 also has some experimental options. You can surf the internet, which is rather slow and a drain on the battery, there are apps available (only for those in the US currently) and you can connect to Facebook. This last option is also shown at the end of each book, you can upload a message to Facebook telling people you have finished a book and tell what you think of it.

Battery
Another major reason for getting the Kindle is because of battery life. Every once in a while the Sony just lost it’s charge overnight, usually the day after I charged it. It didn’t happen often, every 6-8 weeks, but after going on holiday and worrying about not being able to read during the trip to or on the way back from my destination made me think of getting another reader.

On average I charged my Sony once a week, according to the battery meter the battery was usually half full. I can’t really say much about the battery life of the Kindle yet because I hook it up to my computer several times a week and it charges that way too. According to Amazon the Kindle, with WiFi and 3G off, can last up to a month with an average use of 1 hour a day, so 30 hours. I usually read more than one hour a day (on average 3+ hours I would guess) but I usually have WiFi off, unless I want to download a book. I think it might drain a bit faster than my Sony but I don’t mind that since the Kindle is more reliable (plus I can charge it with my PowerMonkey, my PRS couldn’t be charged with it).

I decided to buy a wall charger with my Kindle (although can probably also be charged with the universal USB charger I already have). It’s faster than charging it via the computer and you can charge it whenever I want, you cannot charge the Kindle when the computer is off and it can actually drain the battery when the computer goes into sleep mode.

One thing to keep in mind when putting a lot of books on your Kindle 3 is that each book needs to be indexed (for easy searching). When you put a couple of hundred books on your Kindle in one go this might take a while and it’s a good idea to plug it in to a charger since indexing is a big drain on the battery. Sometimes a book can get stuck indexing, you usually notice this when the battery drains fast. To find the culprit go to the home screen, open the search screen and put in a nonsense word like “aghoie”, it will tell you that it didn’t find it but that some books aren’t indexed yet, you can look at which books aren’t indexed, delete those and reupload them to your reader (if the problem persists reformat the books in Calibre)

Service
The reason why I decided to go for the Kindle instead of buying another Sony was mainly because of Sony’s customer service, or lack thereof. Their idea of fixing a problem with current models is make a new model, instead of updating the firmware of the current models. For instance, my reader had couldn’t have both borrowed PDF and ePub on it together, they solved this with the next generations readers whilst this, to me, seems to be a problem that could have been solved with a firmware upgrade.

Amazon‘s service record is amazing (according to online forums). If you have a problem within the warranty period they usually exchange the Kindle, there are even reports of people breaking the screen of their Kindle by dropping it and Amazon still exchanges it without costs. Sometimes to exchange reader that are out of warranty. Of course, one could be cynical and say that Amazon looks at their readers like they’re printers: they sell the machine (Kindle/printer) cheap and have no problem exchanging it when their is a problem, effectively losing money on it, but they make that up by making money on the supplies (ebooks/cartridges). However, nobody forces you to buy that $15 book. I can usually find something to read for a couple of dollars. If not there are always freebies available and of course the public domain books (both on Amazon and other sites such as Gutenberg). Of course I still buy the new Stephing King book for (probably) around $15, but all in all ereading has turned out to be much cheaper for me than reading dead-tree-books.

Critical Notes
There are only four points of critique.
First, the charging indicator light. It’s on the bottom on the Kindle and much brighter than the one on my Sony (not visible when on my night stand). I usually charge my reader overnight, the amber light indicating it is charging is okay but the green light indicating it is charged actually woke me up the first time I charged it overnight.

My second complaint is that on both the Amazon website and on my Kindle the price of the items on my wishlist aren’t listed. You always have to click on the item to see the price. I use gift cards to buy on Amazon (then I don’t have to pay currency conversion charges for each ebook I buy) so I have a limited budget, seeing the prices of the ebooks on my wishlist makes it easier to pick a book depending on my current budget. I’ve emailed this to the customer service and they would send it on to another department, so maybe, one day, the prices are listed.

Third, when surfing on Amazon looking for ebooks I occasionally see an ebook listed for a certain price and when I click on the book to read the review and the synopsis the price listed is different. This often happens with books listed as on sale on the front page, the sale doesn’t apply to the Netherlands. This can be very frustrating when you see a book you like listed as $1.99 and when you click you see you have to pay $5.65.

Finally, I wish that it would be easier to get a Kindle. In the US and the UK it’s available in various brick-and-mortar stores. It is also available on many local Amazon website (UK, Germany, etc). For people not living in one of those countries they have to order from the US. The price listed on the US website doesn’t include shipping, VAT and import duties (the latter is included in the final price so you don’t have to worry about receiving a bill weeks later). I knew this so I wasn’t caught out, but it would have been cheaper if I had bought it in the UK when I was there on holiday. However, Amazon ships very fast. I ordered mine on Friday and received on Monday morning before 9am!

Conclusion
I really love my Kindle: the screen is easy to read, there’s hardly any glare, the battery life is good and it’s easy to get books. I chose the WiFi only model because I am usually in a place I can connect to WiFi, if not then I always make sure I have enough books to choose from when I finish an ebook. There are some points that can be improved, mostly to do with the Amazon website.

I would give the Kindle 3 WiFi 9/10.

First Impressions: Creative Zen Style 100 8GB

I got so annoyed with my year-old Philips mp3 player (see previous post) that I ordered a new player on Thursday. I chose the Zen Style 100 with 8GB made by Creative. Except for the Philips all my previous players were made by Creative and I must say I’m glad to have another one! The Zen Style is available in two versions. The 100 and the 300, the only difference is that the latter has a fm radio. Both are available in 4, 8 and 16GB although in the Netherlands only the 8GB seems readily available. I ordered mine from Bol.com for €49,99 plus €1,95 shipping. You can also play videos and view pictures on it, because I have absolutely no interest in these features I will not be reviewing them.

In the box
Besides the player the box contains a very short USB cable, a pair of earphones, a quick start guide and some more papers. It would have been nice from Creative to have included a cord/lanyard and a silicone casing.

Look & Feel
The Zen Style isn’t the smallest mp3 player available: it’s just under 8cm long, 4cm wide and 1,36cm thick. It weighs about 44 grams, which seems less than the small, but thicker, Philips Spark. It’s got a 1,8 inch TFT LCD colour display.

Underneath the screen there are 4 small buttons: back, user defined, menu and play/pause/on/off. Beneath that is a 4 point button (in menu: up/down/left/right, when playing: music volume and backward/forward) with a button in the middle. You can set the user define button, I set it to “play all songs random”. The buttons have a nice loud click, which could be because it’s new and not used much. On the one hand the buttons feel cheap, on the other hand I like it that you need to push them with some force, it means that accidental clicks in bags and pockets are less common than with the Spark.

Some reviewers complain about the quility of the screen, that it’s a bit fuzzy. If I would compare it to, say, the display of my Blackberry Bold 9700 then, sure, it’s not that good. But for a cheap mp3 player it good enough. It displays everything I need to know and the colours are vibrant.

The overall feel of the player is a bit cheap. The back is made of gray matte plastic, the front is made of shiny plastic. Especially the back feels cheap, but it doesn’t attract fingerprints and it feels like durable plastic, the type that doesn’t scratch or crack easily. Creative sells silicone casings which will give a more luxurious feel. It would have been nice if they came with the player (Philips had a silicone cover).

Sound
The most important thing of a mp3 player is, of course, how the sound quality is. I thought my Philips was comparable to the my previous Creative players. Unless Creative have made a giant leap forward in the past 2 years I was wrong. The Zen Style’s sound is superior to the Philips Spark’s. The sound is fuller somehow.

One tip: don’t use the earphones provided by Creative, they aren’t that good especially when it comes to the bass. I’ve got Sennheissers and the sound quality is great.

Player features
The major reason for getting this player is because the Philips Spark’s random setting isn’t at all random and it annoyed me. I think that during the 3 dog walks with the Zen Style I’ve heard more different songs than when using the Spark during the previous three weeks of dog walking.

The menu structure of the Zen Style is different than previous Zens, but easily enough to learn. One of the things I really like is that you can choose which options you want to appear in the menu, though I haven’t found a way to change the order of the menu list.

As with most mp3 players you can change the background, I assume you can also choose pictures you have put on the player as background. When playing music, if album of the song that is playing has coverart attached it will display it as background.

In Extras in the menu you can set time and date and there’s also an organizer. In time and date, besides adjusting time and date, you can also choose how to display time (12/24hr), date and if you can an analogue or a digital clock.

Software
Normally I wouldn’t have bothered installing Creative’s software since I use Windows Media Player to organise my mp3s. But for some mysterious reason WMP on my notebook refuses to detect mp3 players (it also didn’t see the Philips). This incarnation of Creative’s software is called Creative Central. It almost works like WMP, emphasis on “almost”.

As before I run into a major problem, CC and my way of organizing my music clash. I use a folder structure instead of putting all mp3s in the Music folder. I use folders to organise my music. First, by artist and then by album, in the album folders are the mp3s. The file name of song are just the title of the song. This causes problems when copying mp3s to the Zen Style. CC just dumps all the songs you want to transfer to the player in the music folder, no folders. This means that songs with the same title can only be copied once. For instance I have several different versions of Aerosmith’s Dream On but I can only copy one of those because they’re all called “dream_on.mp3”. Apparently this is problem has been going on for years with all different Zens. I have owned Zens before but I suspect WMP uses folders so I never ran into this before. The Zen Style can work with folders, I tested it by copying a folder of music manually with Windows File Explorer. Tonight, when I’m home, I’ll test if WMP uses a folder system, but I expect it does.

Another problem is that within half an hour CC hung three times. It also takes a while when you go to, for instance, “all music” or change the way the way you want your music sorted.

Battery and charging
According to Creative the Zen Style’s battery can last up to 32 hours. This of course is in the best case scenario it really depends on volume, sound quality, display setting, etc. Because I got the player only yesterday I can’t really comment on it yet.

The player doesn’t come with a wall charger. You can charge it with the USB cable on the computer but you have to make sure the computer doesn’t enter sleep mode because it stops charging when that happens.  Creative also sells a Zen wall charger seperately (€16,99) it come with different plugs so you can also use it when travelling. Previous Zens I’ve owned could only be charged with Creative chargers. Luckily I had one from the time before Creative stopped packing them with the player. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the Zen Style can be charged with an universal USB wall charger.

Verdict
Since I’ve only got the player yesterday it’s hard to give a good verdict. It looks like a nice player, despite the cheap feel. Time will tell how well the build quality is.

Update: I am now copying music to my Zen Style with WMP and indeed it uses folders so no problem with double file names. My advice: don’t use Creative Central.

+ Price
+ Sound quality
+ User defined button
+ Adjustable menu
+ Charging with universal USB charger

– Creative’s software
– Size
– Cheap feel
– No extra’s in box (silicon cases, charger, lanyard)
– Quality of earphones that come in the box

Score: 4/5

First Thoughts The Sims 3: Ambitions

Last Wednesday I received my copy of the latest expansion pack for The Sims 3: Ambitions. This expansion pack is all about work and being able to follow your sims to work and influence them. You cannot follow them to the already known jobs and the new education career, but your sims can now become a doctor, firefighter, private investigator, architect, stylist, ghost hunter, inventor or be self-employed (you can register your sims as painter, writer, etc whereas before your sim would be listed as unemployed). I haven’t played that much, only the ghost hunter and inventor career, but here are some first thoughts about this expansion pack.

When you are self-employed, and inventor is one of those careers, you can sell the things you invent, paint, find or farm at the Consignment Store. You go to the store (it has limited times it’s open), click the till choose “buy” then go to the tab marked “consign” and offer your items to be sold. Only EA thinks it’s logic to call the option “buy” and not “buy/consign” or something, it took me a while to figure it out. When your items are sold your sim gets the money plus points towards their self-employment career. And here is where the first problems start. The consignment store is bugged, for some people it works without a problem, others get the money from the sale but not the points and others don’t get any more or points. I fall in the second category. At first I thought it might be the one hack I use, but after installing the EP on my notebook I run into the same problem and I have no hacks or non EA custom content installed. It wouldn’t surprise me if it is due to a combination of also having EP World Adventures and/or having Stuff Pack High End Loft installed. Someone from EA has admitted that the store is borked, so they know about it. The work around is selling it from your sim’s  inventory, then you get both money and points, but it’s less fun.

The first new career I’ve tried was the ghost-hunting career. It’s fun but after a while it get repetitious. There are 3 types of “jobs”: hunting for spirits, poltergeists or ghost. The spirits (don’t know if that’s the right term) look like a Casper ghosts, you have to zap them with you ghost-hunting thing and then you can either free them (but then they go haunt other people), sell the from inventory or donate them at the science building for money. The poltergeists make furniture move and the ghosts you don’t see, you have to use a scanner in each room to find them and either zap them or have a conversation with them so they like you enough to convince them to move on. You get two or three jobs offered per night and you go to the house to do the job. You have until 1am to take new jobs, after that they disappear. You can also hunt for ghosts in the neighbourhood, unfortunately when you stop working as a ghost-hunter you cannot hunt for ghosts in the neighbourhood anymore, even if you get to keep your zapper.

After that I played the inventing career, again fun at first but then repetitious. You have to search for scrap at a junkyard (there are 2 in the new neighbourhood Twinbrooks) and have your sim invent. This way you discover the widgets, toys and big inventions. You can sell them or use them (like the harvester, digger or time machine). When you’re good enough and have a certain gem and certain fruits you can also make a robot. Your sim can get into trouble, sometimes inventing backfires and blows up in your sim’s face and it might even set him on fire, so it’s advisable to have a shower nearby. With the digger you can dig holes and find gems or metals or find a tunnel system and jump in it to have an adventure. You can also connect tunnels you have dug and connect them for easy travelling. With the time machine your sim can travel to the past or future and have adventures. Things can happen, your sims can die or return with a child, the only thing that happened to mine is that she got a new set of clothes.

The new build and buy objects aren’t that many, but I like the new style. I love the new laundry system (tip: place a hamper in the bedrooms and bathrooms otherwise you have piles of laundry lying around).

My first impressions are positive, even if the new careers are repetitious there are enough of them to keep you entertained. Hopefully EA will come out with a new patch soon to deal with known issues.

First impressions: Sony Touch eReader

A week ago my black Sony Touch eReader (PRS-600) arrived. For years I’ve been looking for an eReader, the iLiad was too expensive and at that time there were too little ebooks. The Bebook wasn’t fully developed and the Bebook 2 seems to keep getting delayed. And the Kindle wasn’t available in Europe plus I find it too restrictive to be forced to only use Amazon as ebook vendor. Up until last week I read books downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg on my PDA. Now that ePub is slowely  but surely coming forward as the new ebook standard I thought it was time to get a dedicated eReader.

Recently Sony announced that they were going to work together with Bol.com, a Dutch online store, to sell their eReaders and ebooks. Bol would sell their two latest eReader: the Touch and the Pocket. Both looked interesting, the Pocket has a smaller screen, is very portable and is priced reasonably at €199. The Touch has a bigger (touch) screen, note taking capabilities, memory card slots and a (English-English) dictionary and is €299. For me the dictionary and the memory card slots are very important so I decided to spend the €100 extra on the Touch.

I ordered the black one last Friday and it arrived a day later. As with most new electronic devices it needed to be charged before being used. Because I was working I could withstand the temptation of playing with it and hooked it up to the EeePC I use to charge. The manual says that it takes 4 hours to fully charge but after 2-2.5 hours the light went out indicating that the reader was fully charged.

In anticipation of my eReader I had downloaded many ebooks in the ePub format from Gutenberg plus some freebies I found elsewhere in the LRX format (Sony format). The first book I read was Jane Austen’s Emma.

I must say I really like the eReader. The background in grey and the “print” is black, but it’s not difficult to read. In full sun it’s also easy to read (unlike my PDA), but when it’s darker and there is not a lot of light it’s harder. Because of the touchscreen the screen is a bit reflective and a little less paper-like than the Pocket edition, this means that sometimes you have to move the reader a bit to avoid glare. I don’t find the glare too annoying, not much more than that of a glossy magazine or photobook. To avoid problems in low lighting and glare there are covers available with a build in reading light (Sony has one and M-Edge is going to make one soon).

There is a choice between two dictionaries: New Oxford American Dictionary or the Oxford Dictionary of English. I used the latter one and it’s really good, even with old words that are not in use anymore. When reading a book and find a word you want to look up you have to tap it twice to open the dictionary to the right word. I haven’t made any notes yet so I can’t comment on that. You can also add bookmarks to pages by tapping the right top corner twice. You don’t need to do that to mark your page because the reader will remember where you are, even when you read another book it remembers where you are in other books. You can also put mp3’s on it but I have my mp3 player for that so I haven’t tried that either.

The software that comes with the eReader (eBook Library) has it’s quirks. You need it to download ebooks from online stores Sony works with. I’ve had some problems with it that it crashed or hanged. Which is why I use a program called Calibre, which is free and has a lot more option than the Sony software. With eBook Library you can make collection which are called “bookshelves” in Calibre you can give each books tags, when uploaded those tags will create collections on your reader for each tag. This is a much quicker way to organise your collection I find.

One disappointment was the lack of accessories that came with the eReader. There is a flimsy cover and no wallcharger. Some websites have called the cover neoprene but I don’t think it is. It’s a very soft slipcover that doesn’t offer a lot of protection. You can buy covers from Sony seperately, but from what I heard the quality of those varies. Personally I’m waiting for M-Edge to release their line of covers for the Touch, until that time I won’t be taking my reader anywhere with my in my bag because I’m afraid it might be damaged. There also isn’t a wallcharger, you can use the provided usb cable to charge it with or buy the wallcharger seperately (which is €29,95). You can also buy a universal (usb) wallcharger or use a PSP charger. You need to use the PSP plug and not a USB miniplug because it won’t charge on USB if it doesn’t detect a computer. I bought a USB wallcharger (1A) and a USB cord with a PSP plug on it. I’m still on my first charge, but others have noticed that charging it with the PSP plug is better because it seems to hold it’s charge longer that way.

Yesterday I bought my first ebook from Bol. It was a simple process: after you pay you get a download link and it downloads a small program. You have to double click it and it will start eBook Library and it downloads your book. But you have to keep in mind most of the books you download will have DRM. Buying books with Bol this means that for Dutch books you can put/tranfer the ebook to 4 different devices and for English books it’s 6 devices. There are ways to remove this DRM however…

You also need to keep an eye out on the format you download. You cannot read books downloaded from Amazon, for instance. I prefer ePub books or PDF’s with Adobe Digital Edition (ADE). Also a thing I noticed is that some books might not be available in your region. For instance, Stephen King has released a lot of ebooks in the US, but in Europe there are only a few. This type of thing annoys me greatly. There are websites where authors can publish their own work and they aren’t protected by DRM or have region restrictions. Some websites can be fooled by giving a fake address, other websites can see from your IP address where you live or use your credit card details to exclude you from buying books from a different region.

I love the Books on Board website because it has lots of books in different formats and it’s easy to find out if they sell a book/format in your region. They sell a lot more books than Bol.com at the moment and they tell clearly in which format they are available.

All in all I love my reader. I don’t miss the wireless connection that the Kindle has. I love the touchscreen and dictionary. The screen reads well and my eyes won’t grow tired like when I was reading from my PDA. The contrast might be less than that of the Pocket edition and it might have a bit of glare at times but I can live with those things. I am a bit disappointed that there isn’t a wallcharger and a real cover (Sony did supply those with previous eReader models), especially since it isn’t a cheap machine. I hope the publishers will soon find out that region restrictions are silly and they will drop prices for ebooks (some are as expensive or more expensive than the hardcover version of the same book).

The Sims 3: review of CAST, build & buy mode

In my previous review on The Sims 3’s Create-a-Sim feature I already wrote a bit about Create-a-Style (CAST). With it you can easily recolour and retexture clothes. CAST is also integrated in the build and buy mode of TS3. Nearly all objects, walls and floors can be recoloured, there are some exceptions such as stairs, fences, plants and paintings (the frames can be recoloured just not the painting itself). Build and buy mode also have changed a bit compared to TS2.

CAST
It’s very easy to use: you click on the pallet board with paint brush button (next to the hand button) when you’re in the build or buy mode and then click on the item you want to change. A new window appears top right which will help you change the object. Each object one to four sections that can be recoloured. A window, for instance, can have four sections: front frame, front detail, back frame, back detail. Each can be changed separately. At the top of the CAST window you can choose which material you want to use, such as metal, wood, fabric, tiles, etc. After choosing a material you can then choose different styles within the material like different types and colours of wood or various designs of mosiacs.

However, you are not bound to the colours of the different types, you can choose a tile for a kitchencounter and with the colourwheel at the bottom of the CAST window. Each section can have up to four colours, these can be changed as a set or individually. So for instance a kitchencounter has 2 sections: the base and the top. If you choose a tile for the top it can have 4 different colours of tiles you can change.

Another feature of CAST is that if you change a material you can save the one you made. You can also save the recoloured object if you think you might want to use it again. It is also very easy to apply you’re design to other objects. There are two ways to do this. First you can clone the object you just changed if you want more of them (like a diningroom chair or a kitchencounter). Or, if you want to apply the style to objects you already have in the house, you can click the object you want to use as an example to get the CAST window, you can then drag the part with the colour/texture swatches onto the object you want to recolour. You will then get the option to choose which sections you want to recolour.

Writing it down it sounds very complicated, but it really isn’t you can easily learn how to work with the CAST tool. Also, recolouring anything is free, unlike in TS2 where you had to pay for it.

Build & buy mode
On the surface it looks like a lot has changed in build mode compared to TS2, but really it hasn’t. What has changed is the interface. Before you had to click on icons to go to the walls section, windows and doors section or the flooring section. They changed it from icons to a picture of a house on which you can click on, for instance, a fence to go to that section. You can also click on windows, doors, floor, walls, etc. Sometimes a category has more sections and a tab appears where you can easily switch to similar objects. The doors, window and arch sections are merged like this, but also the wall tool and the wall decoration.

In buy mode you can now choose to decorate per room. A picture appears with different objects that can be usually found in those room on which you can click to get a list of those objects. You can also choose the old fashioned way and choose between different categories such as seating, lamps, plumbing, etc.

New is that you can now place most objects at 45 degree angles and the sims are still able to use them. When holding down the ALT button when placing an object you can rotate and place it freely however you choose.

Many people have complained there are so little objects compared to TS2. This is true if you look at TS2 with all its expansion and stuff packs, though I do think there are just a little less objects than in TS2 base game. CAST makes up for this, a bit. I do miss some essential tools that were introduced in expansion packs in TS2. For instance the spiral staircase and the stage tool. With the stage tool you could make make a split level inside the house (not possible with the foundation tool), it also enabled you to make L shaped staircases of a sort. A feature me and others have also been hoping for are stackable stages, so  you can make a staircase with several bends on different heights. Also the abbillity to build a wall against a foundation, to make a garage against a house on a foundation for instance, would have been welcomed enthousiastically.

Personally I most disappointed that you cannot recolour some objects which I think should be recolourable. You cannot, for instance, recolour fences, which I find illogical. Sure, some are available in different colours but I often use several types of fences on one lot and would love to be able to have them all in the same texture and colour. What even more surprised me is that you cannot recolour plants, not even the colour of flowers can be changed! There are a lot more flowers, trees and bushes available in TS3, which makes up a bit for not being able to recolour them.

I love the new CAST feature, but I am dissappoint a bit that you cannot recolour everything, some objects that should be recolourable I feel aren’t. I’m also a bit disappointed that certain features that were introduced in TS2 were left out and much requested features weren’t included. People also feel ripped off that there are not enough objects in the base game. I think this is caused by the The Sims 3 Store, where from the day the game was released several objects sets, hairs and clothing were available to buy. Many people, me included, feel that they should have been put in the game.

Next reviews deals with gameplay and I will hopefully be able to say something about the difference in graphic cards since I”m having mine upgraded from an ATI Radeon X1950 256mb to an ATI HD4870 512mb tomorrow.

The Sims 3: review of create-a-sim

Last week the latest installment of The Sims franchise was released. First scheduled to be released in Februari it got pushed back to June only two weeks before its original release date. The reason given was that EA wanted to be able to release both PC and Mac versions at the same time and to be able to have more time to work on the game.

One week before the release date of June 2nd an illegal version was posted online. Many discussions on Sims forums were about the illegal version; if it was okay to download it (if you had pre-ordered the game), asking questions about the game to those who did have the illegal version (and often in the same post telling the person off for having the illegal version) and of course there were many discussions about the game, it’s bugs, strong and weak points.

I was able to get the game early too. The official release day in Holland was the 4 June. On the day before I had to do some shopping and saw the game in various stores. I decided to visit the store where I pre-ordered the game and they also had it in. After playing the game for just under a week it’s I get the feeling I hardly scratched the surface of the game, but here are my first impressions.

Create-a-Sim
Create-a-Sim it the part of the game where you can design your own Sim, from the facial features to the clothes to its personality. Compared to TS2 there are many more options and some vital differences. You are not not only able to tweak the facial features of your Sims but also its body weight and how muscular he or she is. I find this last feature great, before you were able to select either thin, normal or fat bodyshapes and the fat one wasn’t that fat. Now you can create more diverse Sims. A much requested feature is to be able to have different heights too, this wasn’t included, probably because of scaling problems.

I’m less happy with the sliders for tweaking the facial features. To me it seems that you can change much less areas and the sliders are also limited: it’s very hard to make a Sim with extreme facial features. This might, and probably is, my own problem: I was never very good in designing Sims that looked much different from each other.

Colouring options are also extended. Before there were 4 skintones, now you choose between 5 or 6 and within those you can use a slider to change the hue. There are lighter and darker base skinstones to choose from but also blue and red. However, if a couple have skintones from different sliders their child will have one of the two colours. If both tones are chosen from the same slider the child will have the tone that is somewhere in between the two. Haircolour now also works with a colourwheel or with hex codes. You can now also set different colours for the roots, main hair, highlights and tips. With make-up it’s the same, you can choose and change the colours from the colourwheel. One point of critique I have is that there are so little different hairs to choose from, especially curled hair. I suspect EA wants to make money selling those in their online store.

The system can also be used on clothing. Before you had the same t-shirt, jeans or set of clothes several times in different colours. Now you can change the colours you can finally make your own ensemble in colours you like and not only that you can choose patterns and different fabrics and change the colours of those too. Now you also choose shoes (in TS2 they came with the pants) and even socks and yes you can have your Sim wear sandals with socks. I love this feature, to me it seems that the designers of the game were colourblind when it came to clothing.

Another new addition is that you choose the voice of your Sim, there are three voices and you can change the pitch of each.

In TS2 you could choose if  your Sim was family orientated, popular, intelectual or wanted a lot of money. The TS3 team took it a step further and introduced the traits system. You can choose, for an adult Sim, 5 traits out of over 60 such as evil, good sense of humour, good, kleptomatic, never nude, inappropriate or excitable. Depending on the 5 traits you choose you can pick one lifetime goal out of 5 that the game decides are appropriate for your Sim. You can also choose your Sim’s favorite music, colour and food.

All these lovely new additions also have a downside. The biggest is custom content. Both TS1 and TS2 had big communities which made custom content, ranging from skintones to clothes (both new meshes and recolours) and from make-up to hair. It will probably be a lot harder to make new skintones with the new slidersystem. Making recolours of clothing isn’t necessary anymore, I think the focus of that CC segment will shift to custom patterns. I do hope the modders will figure out how to make and import new hairstyles because, as I mentioned, there aren’t that many. It’s early days still, and the CC-community is already making progress with making new patterns but I expect it will be a lot harder to make and import new content.

Spore: first impressions

I managed to get Spore Galactic Edition, I think it was the only copy they got or maybe more but those were pre-ordered.

Anyway, my first impressions.
I like the game, although I cannot seem to log in (more people have this problem) I still started playing. The first stage is Spore creature is very cute, sometimes you find that you have to swim for your life because a bigger and meaner creature wants to kill you.

Eventually you evolve and live on land. There you can befriend other creatures and even fight them. I haven’t gone far, I think I reached the tribal level, but got killed by a much bigger creature (tip for next time: run).

Graphics aren’t staggeringly beautiful, but the are colourful and attractive. It’s clear that the game is also aimed at a younger audience and not only the die-hard gamers.

I don’t know what the replay value is of the game, it seems pretty limited (herbivore/carnivore) but on the other hand it isn’t a game where you need to play for hours on end in order to enjoy it. It’s a bit like Simcity Societies I think; you can also play for fifteen minutes if that is the time you have. I do think that it will become not as quickly boring as SCS did (although with the fifth patch they added much more game play).

Depending on how the online part is integrated and how the game will evolve with future patches, downloads and expansion packs I think it’s a great game for the casual gamer.