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not_a_real_folkie "not_a_real_folkie" (Farnham, Surrey, UK)

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TuneUp Utilities 2013: 3 User (PC)
TuneUp Utilities 2013: 3 User (PC)

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Go-faster stripes on your PC, 28 Nov. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I must admit I'm somewhat sceptical when it comes to software that promises to make my computer perform better. Surely the biggest challenge my PC faces these days is the amount of programs running all the time, so adding another one is just going to make things worse, no?

Tune-up utilities originates from the same people that brought you AVG Anti-virus (in all its various guises) and is a pretty useful program. Once installed, it goes through your hard disk, registry, looks at running processes, programs that start up when Windows boots etc. and then makes recommendations for things to improve performance. Nothing is done without your permission, and you can "roll back" any changes that seem to cause problems - although I did set a Windows restore point before running the program, and backed up all my data folders to separate media.

In general I have noticed a modest - perhaps not startling - increase in speed on my ageing Vista laptop that was running like treacle beforehand. Certainly start-up and shut down are a lot quicker, and I haven't had any "hangs" since running Tune-up utilities.

There were one or two glitches. The "one click maintenance" seems a bit flaky, and the registry cleaner ground to a halt partway through, with the progress bar stuck in one position. But I could 'undo' the clean and start again with the stand-alone registry tool, which worked fine. Secondly, the software offered me a little pop-up "enable/disable" switch in the corner of the screen for some security software that I use. I thought the switch was saying "disable these alerts" and clicked it - whereupon the security software was disabled and the switch wouldn't go back to "enable"! Not too clever, and it took a while squirrelling around in the Tune-up Utilities logs to find out which part of the suite had done this, and to reverse the change - but it did reverse the change and the security software is running again now. Finally, you have to put up with a nagging screen asking you to register with AVG, which will only accept a full name and e-mail address before proceeding. If you skip it, it pops up again a few days later... a bit of a wind-up, but pretty ubiquitous with software these days.

All in all it's 15% gimmick and 85% genuinely useful utility. If you don't mind paying for software, this could help speed up your Windows PC, especially if it's been clogging up its arteries for a few years.

*** Extra comment after 3 weeks using this product: the Vista "freezes" have returned :( but I suspect that's a hardware problem that no software is going to fix. More baffling, the program has started generating messages in German and some other European language, in a bubble above the system tray. "Haufig den PC belastende Programme" it solemnly informed me this morning. Achtung! I think... ***

Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD Sound Card
Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD Sound Card

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sound OK but not audiophile. Worrying messages during installation., 19 Nov. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Bought this to try and get decent sound from a laptop plugged into a hi-fi amp, and also to get decent A/D conversion from vinyl and other analogue sources.

- Analogue to digital conversion seems to work without any glitches or clicks - this is under 64-bit Windows 7 and true line-in. I didn't use the phono RIAA option. I also disabled my wireless network connection first.
- Nice discreet black box design
- Applications like Audacity and Windows Media Player can see 'Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD' as one of the output options, and it's possible to switch between the PC's native sound card/drivers and the Creative USB box.

- Sound quality, both on A/D and D/A conversion is no way "hi fi". In a side-by-side test ripping a vinyl track to an uncompressed .wav file and playing back on a CD, my laptop sound card did a better job of digitizing the analogue signal from the turntable (using the phono stage in my hi-fi amp on the way). OK, I admit I'm a bit fussy with sound, but then Creative are marketing this as "audiophile".
- Line out is OK, but not stunningly high quality, certainly compared to my 1990s CD player in a side-by-side comparison of the same track played through the Sound Blaster and directly on the CD player.
- Line out is a bit quiet and I suspect it's not true "line out" (50 kilohms impedance), but the more computer-friendly "headphone/speaker" socket impedance.
- The Creative installation CD ran OK, but when I plugged in the actual USB device the PC churned away for a while before reporting "The device is unplugged". However, the gadget actually worked fine, so something odd is going on there, probably due to the fact that the Creative drivers get in the way of the standard Windows USB drivers installing themselves to run the device.
- When you look under "audio devices" in Control Panel, it reports that "Sound Blaster X-Fi HD" is "unavailable"... but again, it actually works OK. Very odd and a bit offputting.

- The black volume knob on the hardware seems to do very little; the volume control in the Creative software panel on the PC does control the volume... between 'inaudible' and 'fairly quiet' settings!

In summary, it's OK but not stunning, and Creative need to supply more information to prevent nervous PC users like me being put off by the warning messages thrown up by Windows. They could do to address the A/D and D/A quality issues and the strange output impedance if they're going to market this as "audiophile" quality. I'd say sound quality was fair-to-middling at best. I returned this to Amazon and purchased an alternative product to do the job.

Tested with: Arcam Alpha 7 amplifier, Mission 723 speakers, side-by-side comparison was with Marantz CD-52 CD player.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 16, 2014 8:39 PM GMT

Canon PowerShot A1300 Digital Camera - Silver (16.0 MP, 5x Optical Zoom) 2.7 inch LCD
Canon PowerShot A1300 Digital Camera - Silver (16.0 MP, 5x Optical Zoom) 2.7 inch LCD

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Canon missing the target, 11 Nov. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
My last digital camera was a Canon Powershot A610, bought in about 2005 and just about giving up after 7 years of intensive use in a household with young children constantly wanting to take photographs. The A610 had been marvellous, producing pin-sharp, compelling photographs with excellent colour and well-judged auto-exposure settings. Its replacement was this model, which seemed to boast twice the sensor resolution at half the price (the A610 was around £170 in 2005), half the number of batteries and the capability to take SDHC cards. Great.

Unfortunately Canon seem to have made too many design compromises to get this down to the current price (£70 odd). The lens quality is poor, with streaks and glare from windows on interior photographs. I checked for fingerprints and the lens is clean - just "not very good" to use the technical term.

Secondly, the autofocus algorithm is seriously flawed. I was gutted to find that the photos I took at a mate's recent milestone birthday were almost universally blurred. You *can* get in-focus photographs with the Powershot A1300 but you have to "humour it", continuously pressing the pre-exposure button while the autofocus hunts for the right setting. Not really practical for on-the-fly shots like a birthday celebration or anything that isn't sitting still very patiently.

This becomes more of a headache with movies. Although the camera boasts a "HD" movie setting, and produced gi-enormous files on the SD card, it unfortunately makes its focussing decision based on the first few seconds of the movie... and then happily sits there recording fuzzy footage for as long as you keep going.

Very, very poor indeed. Avoid.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 20, 2015 9:07 PM GMT

Samplitude Music Studio 2013 (Anniversary Special incl. 12 GB Independence Sound Library)
Samplitude Music Studio 2013 (Anniversary Special incl. 12 GB Independence Sound Library)

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Music in the Eurozone, 9 Nov. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Magix was founded in 1993 in Germany and its first product was called "Music Maker". Since then the company has branched out into video, photo editing and utilities, but always maintained its presence in the music software world. Its Samplitude professional Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) has an excellent reputation amongst studio engineers and has been given glowing reviews in magazines such as Sound on Sound.

This program, on the other hand, is a stripped-down version of Samplitude for home music-makers, and is pitched somewhere between the cheaper Music Maker and the £800+ Samplitude professional suite. So, have they got the balance right, or have they stripped out too much? I think the answer depends on what you want to do with the software - and how much patience you have to learn an "interesting" user interface.

Where this software excels is in recording of live audio - either from microphones, or from instruments (guitars, keyboards). One nice idea is that each "take" is treated as an "object" in the program, and you can apply effects to it, manipulate it, edit it, all with a few mouse clicks. Audio recordings can be split, combined, stretched... all sorts of goodies.

The program also has some wonderful VST virtual instruments bundled with it: pianos that range from soft to grandstanding, lovely strings, wacky analogue-esque synth patches, nice sample-based drums etc. These can be driven from a MIDI keyboard and the output either generated live (i.e. it works as a MIDI sequencer) or routed to another track as permanent audio. I found a couple of the VST instruments overloaded my PC's processing capability (Intel Core i5 @ 2.5GHz; 6GB RAM) and caused some notes to cut off - so make sure you've got a beefy computer.

Downsides? The user interface is complex and, I found, non-intuitive. A couple of examples: when connecting a MIDI keyboard, simply right-click on the 'Mute' button for that track to access a menu that lets you select and activate the VST instrument. It reminded me of that old Microsoft gem, "To shut down the computer, click Start".

Another thing that caused me about 2 days frustration is that the program initially starts up in what it calls "Easy Mode". Everything seems to be there, but in a simplified screen layout. Great idea. Except that MIDI functionality is disabled in "Easy mode" - you can set all the parameters, choose a VST instrument, you can even hear the instrument playing in your headphones when you press notes on the MIDI keyboard... but the stupid software only produces (in my case) comical recordings of fingers clunking away on the keyboard, recorded from the PC's built-in microphone. So, to make MIDI recording easier, disable "Easy mode"!

One final niggle - as someone used to hardware sequencers (the Yamaha QY series and Roland's PMA machines) I found the pre-defined drum loops rather limited, not very flexible and few in number. Magix call them "Soundpools", and you can download more (but possibly at extra cost). If you're not a natural drummer that could be a drawback to creating credible rhythm tracks.

There is a scary 500-page PDF manual supplied and I'd recommend reading this before starting and if you run into problems. There are some marvellous Euro-speak paragraphs ("Wave projects include audio files. VIP objects reference to corresponding wave projects open in the background. The reference solely the audio files and receive working instructions as to what the computer is to do with these files." [p78] Sorry?) and occasional excitable language when I'd have preferred clear instructions... but that's a minor problem.

In summary - Samplitude Music Studio is very powerful if you want a PC-based multi-track recorder. It works quite well as a MIDI sequencer once you've twigged the "Easy mode" gotcha. Its functionality as a "band in a box" is quite limited. You need to invest time in getting to know the complex user interface before you get any decent results. I think the pros will stick with the full-fat Samplitude product. Music Maker users will probably feel at home here and find some nice new VST sounds and FX.

Samsung NP350V5C 15.6 inch Laptop (Silver) (Intel Core i5 3210M 2.5GHz, 6GB RAM, 500GB HDD, DVDSM DL, LAN, WLAN, Webcam, Integrated Graphics, Windows 7 Home Premium 64-Bit)
Samsung NP350V5C 15.6 inch Laptop (Silver) (Intel Core i5 3210M 2.5GHz, 6GB RAM, 500GB HDD, DVDSM DL, LAN, WLAN, Webcam, Integrated Graphics, Windows 7 Home Premium 64-Bit)

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars No complaints - like all modern PCs, assumes quite a bit of knowledge, 17 Oct. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
These are first impressions, but this seems like a very nice little laptop. It smokes along nicely and - once set up - Windows 7 eases you gently into the experience of a new computer (when you're probably very comfortable with your old one).

*** update - my screen had a dead pixel but, with the usual excellent Amazon customer service, they sent a courier for the machine and swapped it for a brand new one. Bit of a quality control lapse from Samsung, but with Amazon at least you can buy with confidence.

The replacement has no dead pixels and Windows update is enabled at first boot-up, so a big improvement.

There is one annoying little feature that you can disable: anyone who logs on, who isn't an Administrator, sees three pop-up windows that require the administrator password (or "No" to stop the program running). The 3 applications are Samsung bloatware and can be disabled using Windows Task Scheduler (Google 'Samsung SWMAgent' - which is one of the unwanted programs). They might be useful but the nuisance of having to type in the admin password at each logon renders them a real nuisance. ***

The keyboard and display perform well - I did keep accidentally hitting the "Num lock" key, which is just to the right of the backspace key (the machine has a "numeric keypad", of the sort used for intensive data entry, to the right of the main keyboard), but that says more about me than the computer!

The only slightly cautious comment I would make, as a reasonably IT-savvy user, is that the initial setup is potentially a bit confusing. Like all modern PCs, all you get in the box is a single-sheet "quick start" guide, that tells you how to physically switch the thing on - and then you're on your own. Everything else is on the hard drive or online, but of course you need to set up Windows to let you access those things. The first information you're invited to type in actually sets the name and password of the Administrator account under Windows, as well as the computer's "name" that will appear on networks etc... but this is not very clear at the time. You also have to set the working language for Windows - with a dire warning that this cannot be changed later - using the good ol' trackpad mouse. Accidentally select "Sanskrit"*, press too hard on the touchpad, and you're stuffed forever!

* It doesn't really offer Sanskrit... as far as I recall

After that it was quite straightforward to connect to a wireless network, set up other members of the family with their own user accounts etc. I may have missed a trick, but Windows Update seemed to be disabled in the initial configuration - easily fixed, but again it assumes a certain amount of IT confidence to go diving into Control Panel. When I switched on W. Update, it immediately downloaded 58 windows updates, including a large number of security patches. Gulp! *** W.Update was enabled in the replacement machine ***

The laptop comes with a 60 day trial of Norton anti-virus, after which I expect to be pestered with invitations to buy the full product... but all PC manufacturers do that sort of thing, so it's no big deal. There's a trial version of MS Office 2010 pre-installed, but you have to cough up for a licence key to use it properly. If you don't it's just eating up hard disk space.

Everything else works really well. Peripherals, networking, all seem to fire up seamlessly; the only casualties being a couple of "legacy" peripherals that didn't have Windows 7 drivers available. I'm talking late-90s/early-noughties kit, so for most people that won't be a problem.

Overall it's a great little machine and, once the initial adrenaline-inducing setup has been completed, *** and the bloatware disabled*** it looks, feels, and works really nicely. 4 stars - one star docked for the bloatware hassle.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 31, 2012 9:50 PM GMT

Get Productive!: Boosting Your Productivity and Getting Things Done
Get Productive!: Boosting Your Productivity and Getting Things Done
by Magdalena Bak-Maier
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slightly breathless and a bit patchy, 5 Oct. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I bet Magdalena Bak_Maier is a great person to meet, probably inspirational, but I did find her writing style a little breathless and excitable. For some people that will be selling point, so if you like the "OK - let's get started now!!" sort of approach, you'll love this. I found it made for exhausting reading.

The author invites us to dip into the book, rather than feeling duty-bound to plough our way through from pages 1 to 214. I took her advice and headed for the "Greatest Hits" techniques suggested in the introductory chapter. The Diamonds, Gold and Lead technique left me scratching my head I'm afraid. I categorized the activities I engage in currently, into Diamonds, Rough Diamonds, Gold, False Gold and Lead (are you following it so far?) but then was baffled by the invitation to prioritize "high-level activities" once I'd done the categorization. Which ones are they? Activities carried out on the roof? Gold things? Diamond things? Konfusing.

OK, next up I tried the goal clarifier... this was a lot better and, although with hindsight it seemed to be largely commonsense, it did make me re-evaluate things I'm trying to get done.

So, a 50% hit rate with the first two exercises I tried from the book, but by that time the energetic writing style had worn me down and I confess I had to leave the book.

I would say that, if you need pepping up and an injection of enthusiasm, this is the perfect book. If you want a cool-headed, methodical approach, perhaps better to look elsewhere.


4.0 out of 5 stars Silver album plus rock 'n' roll...eighties style(!), 16 Sept. 2012
Guess I should review this, since there are no other reviews here.

The Silver box set included the normal "Silver" album (not at all bad - see my separate review) and a second LP called "Rock 'n' Roll Silver" which featured Cliff getting down with his wild, crazy rock 'n' roll band called 'Thunder'. The idea seemed a bit strange at the time, although most of us forgave Cliff since he was one of the original fifties rockers, but time has not been particularly kind to the 80s reworkings of classic rock 'n' roll songs on the second LP. I suppose the best thing is that the voice is still in great form, and the improved technology means you get a better Cliff vocal on these vintage classics. The band, however, are not especially well served by the eighties reverb-heavy production and the whole thing sounds, oddly, more dated that Cliffs own 1950s recordings when heard with 21st-century ears.

A bit of a curio, and a must for collectors, but perhaps not the best place for the casual Cliff investigator (is there any such thing?) to start.

5 stars for Silver
3 stars for Rock 'n' Roll Silver (and all for the vocals)
= average 4 stars.

Live In London
Live In London

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent singing and playing... slightly anaemic recording, 7 Sept. 2012
This review is from: Live In London (MP3 Download)
You can't fault Maria's soulful, bluesy, committed performance on this live recording from Ronnie Scott's in 1984. Nor can you fault the brilliant musicianship of her tight band - lovely, fluid guitar from Archie Williams, jazz-inflected piano and solid rhythm section.

A highlight is "Rio de Janiero Blue" where Maria's vocal has that classic aching, latin/blues crossover quality that makes her special, and Williams lets rip with a truly blistering electric guitar solo that elicits an enthusiastic response from the audience.

Overall though, if anything, the whole affair sounds rather "understated", which is at odds with modern - and vintage (50s/60s) - live recordings. I'm guessing it's a function of the mid-80s "sound": so there are crisply-recorded drums with just a smidgeon of reverb, the guitar, Hammond and piano are almost 'hi fi' in quality. What's missing is a taste of the sweat and danger that makes a truly great gig something to remember. I can't imagine Maria ever turned in a pedestrian performance in her life, so it's gotta be the mid-80s sound tech.

Music (incl vocals): 5 stars, easily
Live recording: 3 stars. You can hear everything except the sweat.

journey to addis
journey to addis
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £7.29

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic reggae album, played by master musicians, 26 July 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: journey to addis (Audio CD)
The most important instrument in a reggae band? Well, it's got to be the bass, hasn't it? Shaking the speaker cones and driving the music onwards. Third World's basslines are endlessly inventive - deep and sinister on "Cold Sweat", ducking and weaving on "Now That We Found Love", popping and slapping on the instrumental "Journey to Addis".

Or maybe it's the drums. This album has sharp, clear Compass Point recorded drums, with that typically 'dry' Island Records acoustic that hasn't dated badly at all. The hi-hat cuts through beautifully without slicing off your ears, and again the playing is constantly inventive, but ever losing the groove.

Or maybe it's the guitars? Not content to spend a whole album going 'onk-chinka-onk-chinka-onk-chinka...', the guitarist here keeps breaking off for scuzzy, distorted solo improvisations that evoke hot, dusty evenings watching a Jamaican band perform outdoors.

Or maybe it's the vocals. Third World possess two or three excellent, soulful male vocalists, with occasional vocal spots by another bloke with a subterranean basement-voice, and lost of high and pure harmonies thrown into the mix. My only tiny problem with this album is the in-yer-face Rastafari philosophy that pretty much drives every lyric. The faithful will love it, but those who find it hard to accept a 20th century African head of state as the second incarnation of Christ may struggle with some of the meanings here.

But it's mostly about the music, and Third World have created a beautiful album. No two songs sound alike, and all have rich sounds and textures that make them a constant delight and stand repeated listening.

I should add a note of caution for downloaders - make sure you get the 7'40" album version of "Now That We Found Love" and not the single edit that some online retailers (not Amazon) are flogging. This CD remaster is excellent - faithful to the original (I have the vinyl pressing from 1978) and it has definitely NOT been ruined by putting the sound through the too-good-to-be-true filter. My CD states "Made in the USA" and "Distributed by Def Jam Records".

The Rough Guide to Florida
The Rough Guide to Florida
by Sarah Hull
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative as ever - less 'rough' than before, 26 July 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Rough guides made a name for themselves in the eighties as a kind of 'alternative' guide book for (possibly) young and (maybe) unorthodox travellers, who wanted to see things off the normal tourist trail without breaking the bank. The whole vibe was low-budget, with dull brown covers and no glossy pictures. Whereas your 'traditional' guide book would wax lyrical about some stately home or chateaux (entry fee: £££), Rough Guides steered you to bars where the locals drank, sights that the package tours avoided, and hostels that would - on a good night - keep the rain out.

The good news is that this kind of inside info is still there - the 'challenge' is that RGs have gone slightly upmarket and tried to reach out to a wider cross-section of travellers. Out go the boring brown covers and in come shiny, colourful jackets with nice piccies. So, the Rough Guide to Florida still points you away from the theme parks and studio tours, to find the real Florida - if you want it - lurking on the outskirts of towns, away from Disneyville. But interpersed amongst this lot is, for example, a blow-by-blow account of all the rides at Disneyland (and tips on how to beat the queues), detailed listings of hotels in Palm Beach that don't seem to accept YHA cards as far as I can see, and some fairly pricey restaurants.

Taken on its merits, it's great. The honest views are still there (not everything is "wonderful" or "delightful" as in some guide books) and you could put together a very good value, non-conformist tour of Florida based on this book. On the other hand, if you've just dropped off the 4x4 at the Airport and are wondering where to take the kids during those long Private School holidays, there's probably plenty here to help you shift that troublesome surplus cash while you're in Florida. It's both Janet Street-Porter *and* Private Eye's Polly Filla in one handy volume.

Incidentally, the section I found really interesting was the Historical Perspectives chapter, which tells you so much about how modern-day Florida has been shaped, and makes a visit there a much richer experience as a result.

Buy with confidence, as always with Rough Guides, but make sure you know what kind of holiday or trip you want before you dip in.

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