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Try Out My New Podcast

It occurs to me there might be people reading my Blog who don’t follow me on Google Plus or Twitter. So I thought I’d just do a little post to say, please check out my Podcast, Fantastic Stories, where each week I’ll be introducing an hour of classic audio drama from the days before Television was popular.

Head to the Podcast’s website at http://fantasticstoriespodcast.wordpress.com to find out more and for links to episodes and to subscribe.

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The Best of Netflix UK So Far

The moment we’ve been waiting for is here, Netflix has come to the UK. The catalogue isn’t huge yet but there’s a lot of good stuff there. Here’s my top 5 list of my favourite things on Netflix UK that you might not have seen before. If you’ve started a Netflix free trial already, click on each title to be taken to it’s page on Netflix.

Henning Mankell’s Wallander

The Swedish series of TV movies based on the books of Henning Mankell about Kurt Wallander, a homicide detective working in the town of Ystad in Sweden. The first film is based on the last (at the time) Wallander novel Before the Frost which introduces Linda Wallander, Kurt’s daughter, as a young police officer, just out of training. The other 25 films continue from thee with original stories.  If  you’re in the mood for some great mystery drama and subtitles don’t bother you, definitely give it a go.

The 4400

American sci-fi series from the USA network that never really took off over here. Telling the story of 4400 people who have vanished over the course of 5 decades and suddenly all reappear together, without  having aged, beside a lake in Washington state, and the FBI agents tasked with investigating what happened to them. It slowly becomes obvious that many of the 4400 are developing strange powers. It’s one of the most underrated sci-fi shows of the 2000s and it’s well worth a go.

Das Boot

Wolfgang Petersen’s finest hour. Before he made the move to Hollywood, he made this fantastic gripping film about the crew of a German U-boat in the middle of the Second World War’s battle of the Atlantic. Filmed on a real U-boat, this is definitely one of the best war films ever made. The original theatrical version was 2:30 long before being extended for a 4:30 TV miniseries. This version is the Director’s cut which cuts a happy medium at 3:30. Short enough for a single sitting, but long enough to include many of the fantastic character scenes that didn’t make the original theatrical cut.

Zulu

One of the great British war movies, tells the true story of the historic Battle of Rourke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu war. Following the slaughter of a large British force at Isandlwana, a 4000 strong column of the Zulu army turns its focus on the small mission station at Rourke’s Drift manned by just over 100 British soldiers. Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (in his first major role) play the two Lieutenants who work together to organise the defence. This film was made with the full cooperation of the Zulu nation with current Chieftain Mangosuthu Buthelezi playing his own ancestor, King Cetewayo.

Twin Peaks

Another series not widely distributed in the UK is Twin Peaks. Brilliant series about the small town where the murder of teenager Laura Palmer sends the town in to mourning, but everyone in the town has secrets. Every character in this series is a little odd at least and the acting is fantastic but the standout performance is from Kyle MacLachlan as FBI agent Cooper who comes to the town to investigate the death of Laura.

 

I hope you get a chance to check out some of these and here’s looking forward to Netflix UK growing it’s catalogue over the next few months.

Firesale: A Review of the HP Touchpad

The weekend before last, HP decided to give up on the webOS system they’d acquired when they bought Palm last year. This decision meant that the only webOS device that had already been released by HP, the Touchpad tablet computer, was discontinued. In order to get rid of stock as quickly as possible, HP decided to let retailers sell the devices off for under 1/4 of the usual RRP in a so-called Firesale.

A 9 inch tablet for £100 odd seems a pretty good deal so the Touchpad briefly became the most sought gadget in many countries with shops and online stores selling out within minutes of lowering the price. On Tuesday, my boss managed to get hold of 10 from one of our suppliers at work and they were quickly snapped up by colleagues, including me, and they arrived by courier the next day. So the question is, was the money I spent worth it, given the lack of app support and the chances of significant numbers of new apps for an operating system that is basically dead being slim?

I’d have to say a resounding yes! If I had the money, I’d probably buy an iPad but I can’t afford that and the Touchpad is a pretty good alternative. The iPad is lighter, a bit faster, and has a great app catalogue but other than that, I can’t see any way it would be better for what I need it for than this (I say ‘this’ because I’m actually writing this review in the excellent WordPress app on my touchpad).

Firstly, webOS is a great operating system for a tablet. The multitasking is much better than I’ve seen on Android or in my limited experience with iOS (I should point out at this point that I’ve never actually owned an iOS device just had a go on other peoples’). It just feels a bit more like a computer, which I like for something that I am using as an alternative to buying a netbook. In any app, I just click the main button and the app I’m using becomes a ‘card’ on the screen, like a window on a computer.

These cards are arranged in ‘stacks’ of related cards on the screen (for example, the Edit Post card I’m currently typing in, gets stacked on top of the main screen of the WordPress app). You can swipe between different stacks to change what you’re doing and stack and un-stack cards and arrange them as you wish. To close a card you simply swipe it off the top screen.

One of the major things I’ll be doing on this device is web browsing and the browser is the most fully functional I’ve seen on a mobile device. It seems to incorporate full flash and HTML5 support, I’ve not yet encountered a website that isn’t displayed properly. The only slight niggle is that unlike most mobile device browsers, when you pinch zoom, the text does not wrap around to fit to the width of your screen. Fortunately, on this screen I’ve yet to encounter any text that I couldn’t read without the need to zoom.

The email app is really great. Quickly synced with my gmail account without issue. There is support for multiple accounts and it looks like it’ll auto setup for all the major webmail providers with just your email address and password. Basically, you’ve got three columns; folders, emails in selected folder and a preview of the selected email. One of the great things about a lot of webOS apps is the column customisation. It’s a simple one click to hide the folders column to give the email preview more space or to hide both columns and open the selected email in full screen. Simply click the star next to a folder in any of your mailboxes to add it to your favourites and keep it at the top of the folders column.

The calendar is simple and easy to use, obviously stylistically inspired by Google calendar with which it syncs almost instantly. I should mention at this point that when you add an account it will ask you exactly what you would like to sync from it. See the screenshot of an example sync screen for my google account.

Less important (to me anyway) preinstalled apps include maps (provided by Bing and requiring a WiFi connection to work), calculator, alarm clock and Adobe PDF and MS Office document readers (you can add your dropbox account and read your dropbox documents on the tablet using these) also messaging which will allow you to text chat using your Skype, Yahoo, Google or AIM account. The Phone and Video calls app will let you make calls, including to normal phone numbers, over WiFi using either your Skype account or via a Palm webOS phone connected wirelessly to the touchpad. The music app will play all the major formats without issue. The interface seems ok but I’ve not used it as yet. (EDIT: Since I wrote this part of the review, Quickoffice, which is the MS Office reader mentioned above, has been updated and can now edit and create new Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, making it much more useful)

Finally, the photos and videos app. When you add the accounts, your photos from facebook, photobucket and Snapfish will sync to the device. I was impressed by the speed of this sync. Within a minute of adding my facebook account and asking it to sync photos I was browsing all of my facebook photos in the pictures and video app. As far as videos are concerned, it plays very nicely on the 1024×768 screen with a simple interface that allows you to switch between widescreen and 4:3 cropped modes for widescreen content. Format-wise, video playback is limited to mp4 files encoded with MPEG4, H.263 or H.264. The app will also remember your position in the last video watched while the device stays on so you can switch to other apps without having to find your place again when you come back.

So the built in apps cover a great web browser, email app, calendar, video and music playback as well an MS Office document editor which are most of the things I’d use a tablet for but there’s one major thing missing. As most of you reading this will know, I’m a frequent user of Twitter so a good Twitter app is essential and there’s a good one in the App Catalogue named SpazHD. It uses a column system similar to the desktop version of TweetDeck. It has a few less features, but has all the essentials like URL shortening, image previewing, conversation view and more. Speaking of social networks, the Facebook app for touchpad is the best I’ve seen.

There are a few other good apps in the Catalogue too. Mosaic is a good RSS reader and Sky News and the Guardian have decent news apps. AccuWeather is there for all your forecasting needs, and WordPress for your blogging. I’m sure there are a handful other good apps in there that I’m yet to find, but I’ve not spent too long looking.

As for games, the free selection is pretty limited but it does have Angry Birds and a great little game called Tanked where you control a tank and battle other players either online or up to four player splitscreen on the same tablet. The splitscreen is a little ridiculous, but great fun. If you’re willing to pay a couple of quid, there are lots of other games available.

So, it’s time to sum up. The touchpad really is a good device. webOS is a great operating system, especially on a tablet. The tablet essentials are all there, plus a few good extras and a couple of good games. It is a little underpowered, freezing for a few seconds on occasion and it does have a limited app collection but the good web browser makes up for this in most cases. I’m glad I bought it and I’m sure I’ll get good use out of it. HP have announced that after the unexpected demand, they will be manufacturing another batch of touchpads. They’re expected to retail for about double the original firesale price, but at that they’ll still be less than half the price of an iPad and if, like me, you want a 9″ tablet but can’t justify the cost of an iPad, then I’d recommend trying to get hold of one of these when the next batch comes through, it’ll still be well worth it.

Rating: 4/5

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 1 Preview Showing (Spoiler-free Review)

This blog post will not contain spoilers beyond the identities of the main cast and a basic outline of the premise of the story all of which is already public knowledge. If you want to go into the first episode knowing absolutely nothing about the story, do not read on.


A few weeks ago, I was on my way home from work when I saw a tweet from the Doctor Who News Page that there was to be a special preview of the first episode of the new series of Torchwood at the British Film Institute (BFI) cinema on London’s Southbank. I tried desperately to book on my phone but the BFI’s booking system disagreed with my HTC Desire’s browser so I had to wait till I got home 15 minutes later. Fortunately there were a handful of single seats left, though they were swiftly disappearing, and I managed to book myself a seat in the middle of the cinema in the third row from the back.

Fast forward to today and the date of the showing had arrived. I escaped from the rain and took my seat in the National Film Theatre to enjoy the show. After a quick introduction from a man from the BFI the guests of honour were introduced. Attending the showing were stars John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Bill Pullman, Kai Owen and Tom Price as well as producers Russell T Davies and Julie Gardener. Then, after the standard warning about not posting spoilers on the internet or videoing the performance, we got underway.

We get straight down to business with the premise of the series being presented very early on. Suddenly, no one in the world can die. Not that they’re indestructible, they can be injured, but they just don’t die. At the same time, the CIA find mentions of Torchwood and they try to find out more about it. Gradually, the old Torchwood crew are re-introduced with Jack’s entrance particularly well done.

Action in this episode takes place on both sides of the Atlantic and there is plenty of it. Despite taking time to introduce the characters and concept to new viewers, there’s lots of action to get excited about just in this one episode. Gwen especially gets some awesome moments. The action sequences are where the increase in budget from American investment is most clear. There’s some really cool stuff they just couldn’t have done without that extra cash.

The episode was a great ride. Lots of humour balancing nicely with the seriousness of the main story lines. The balance was also right between the info for the new viewers and jokes for long-standing fans. There are a few Wales jokes that I imagine will go right over the heads of the majority of Starz’s audience. The acting was great as always and Murray Gold’s cinematic score really suited the large scale of the episode.

The evening finished off with a Q&A with Barrowman, Myles, Pullman and Davies with lots of great anecdotes, far too many to share here, but one of the highlights was a hilarious story about Barrowman hiding in the shower in Myles’ trailer and scaring her half to death.

I had a great evening and can’t wait to see what’s coming up in the next 9 episodes. I’d encourage both current fans and newcomers to give it a go.

TORCHWOOD: MIRACLE DAY premiers on Starz in the USA on 8th July and on SPACE in Canada on and UKTV in Australia on 9th July. BBC1 has yet to set a premier date for the UK but it’s expected to be around the same time in early July.

30 Day TV Challenge: Day 4 – Your favorite show ever

As most of you will have guessed, as far as fandom goes I am above all a Star Trek fan and this is the pinacle of that. The other shows are great and I love them all but the huge ensemble cast, including many great recurring characters, and ambitious, detailed and far reaching storytelling, not afraid to tell a story over multiple episodes and seasons, pushes this show to the top of the heap.

30 Day TV Challenge: Day 3 – Your favorite new show (aired this t.v season)

From Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis, this series is a perfect modernisation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great investigator. Set in modern day London, Benedict Cumberbatch stars with Martin Freeman as Doctor Watson. The thing that sets this apart from so many adaptations that have failed is that it keeps Holmes as just that, an investigator. He’s a fantastically talented detective, an eccentric, but what he’s not is an action hero. This series keeps Watson and Holmes doing what they’ve always done but in the modern day.

30 Day TV Challenge: Day 02 – A show that you wish more people were watching

I don’t so much wish more people were watching this so much as wish more people had the opportunity to.

Originally called Engrenages, this is a French Police procedural drama that most people have probably never heard of. Over here it’s shown late at night on BBC4 and doesn’t get much attention. I’m pretty sure it’s never been shown in the states. Following the cases of Police Captain Laure Berthaud of the Paris Police, this show is really great, the sort of gritty police drama we in Europe do so well. 8-12 episodes per season following a single case is just the right length to be able to fully flesh out the investigation with plenty of twists and turns without much filler. The main characters along with Captain Berthaud are the Investigating Magistrate in charge of the investigation (the French system has an investigating judge overseeing the CID), the prosecutor working with the police team and a young ambitions defence lawyer.

I can’t find any clips or trailers in English, but here’s the opening credits.