Random stuff on Life, the Universe and Science Fiction


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.

Book 6: Glory Glory!, Andy Mitten

Book 6 of my challenge was all thanks to Mary (@mekster on Twitter) who kindly lent it to me. You can check out her blog, including her own 50 book challenge, at http://meksmeanderings.blogspot.com/

Basically, Glory Glory! is the story of Manchester United in the 90s, culminating in the historical treble win in May 1999. The book comes from the perspective of the players themselves, and take the form of a series of in depth interviews with10 of the players and the Club Chairman at the time, Martin Edwards.

All the stories were really interesting and it was great to read a bit about what footballers are really like behind the scenes, and the backgrounds that they came out of. I especially liked that it didn’t focus on the big names. No Beckham, Giggs or Schmeichel in this book. Some of the most interesting stuff came from David May and Nicky Butt who were relatively small players at the club (or as small as you can be in the red shirts of Manchester United).

I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who was following English football in the 90s or who has and interest in Manchester United.

Books 1&5: ST DS9 – Mission Gamma Books 1&2

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Series and minor ones for the DS9 relaunch books follow.

I know I’m well behind on this and I’m unlikley to make it to 50 books this year but I’ll do my best. I’m even further behind on blogging about it so here goes.

Book 1: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Mission Gamma: Book 1 – Twilight, David R. George III

The first book of my challenge was the next up in my reading of the DS9 relaunch novels. Twilight is the first book in a four-part set called Mission Gamma that in it’s main plot follows an exploration mission of the Gamma Quadrant by the crew of the USS Defiant from Deep Space Nine.

In the previous books in the series (Avatar two parter) we are introduced to the new crew of DS9 after the ascension of Captain Sisko in the series finale. Kira has been promoted to station commander and her new XO is a Starfleet Commander Elias Vaughan. Lieutenant Nog has taken over from Chief O’Brien as chief engineer and Lieutenant Ro Laren (newly commissioned into the Bajoran militia) has Odo’s old office as chief of station security. Other new crewmembers include Andorian Ensign Thirishar ch’Thane and Commander Vaughan’s estranged daughter, Ensign Prynn Tenmei.

The main plot of the first book concerns the Defiant‘s departure from Deep Space Nine commanded by Vaughan with Ezri Dax, Nog, Doctor Bashir and Ensigns ch’Thane and Tenemi on board. The first new planet they come across is occupied by the peaceful Vahni Vahltupani but the planet is in danger of destruction from mysterious energy pulses from space. Vaughan and his crew must race against the clock to save an entire people from annihilation.

In the meantime on the station a Federation diplomatic team arrives to negotiate Bajor’s entry to the Federation.

Book 5: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Mission Gamma: Book 2 – This Gray Spirit, Heather Jarman

In the second book, the Defiant is damaged by an enemy weapon but is rescued by a ship from the alien race known as the Yrythny. The crew quickly discovers that this is a society at breaking point. The planet is plagued by strict discrimination between the Houseborn deemed genetically superior and the enslaved lower class known as the Wanderers who are stripped of many rights including the right to breed and the eligibility to serve in the military. Wanderer terrorist attacks have brought the planet to the verge of civil war. A throwaway comment from Ezri Dax about the possibility of getting an independent mediator in, causes the defiant crew to be drawn in to the centre of the conflict.

Back on the station, a Cardassian delegation arrives in the hopes of patching up relations between them and Bajor before Bajor enters the Federation.

The books are both reasonable reads. In both cases the plot on the Defiant is more compelling than the one on the station and the plot of the first book is far more interesting than that of the second. Both books, thought the second more than the first, unfortunately suffer from far too much concentration on two minor plots, the first of which is the budding relationship between Ro Laren and Quark. The second is the arrival on the station of Ensign ch’Thane’s family. Great detail is given to the complicated Andorian family structure and while it’s all interesting, I just got bored of it after a while. From the reviews I’ve read, This Gray Spirit is the low point of the series so I’m looking forward to reading the remaining books.

Book 4: Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea by Captain W.E. Johns

For book 4 of my challenge, I decided to go for another period adventure story, this time set just after World War II.

James Bigglesworth, known throughout the world as Biggles, is the protagonist in a series of books by Captain W.E. Johns, an RFC veteran of the First World War.

Biggles, a seemingly slow-aging character started his career in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I and continued to have adventures with his colleagues Algy, Ginger and Bertie throughout the inter-war years, during WWII and in the post war years where they became a special Air Police unit working out of Scotland Yard. It is in this period in the early 50s that this particular book is set. Biggles and Algy are sent to a tiny British owned island in the Indian Ocean to investigate reports of an unidentified aircraft spotted flying towards the island. There they find a mysterious Brit and come into conflict with Hashish smugglers, a giant squid and a shark.

This is a classic Biggles book. It’s all good. 8/10

50 Book Challenge so far:
Books: 4/50
Pages: 1803/15000

Book 3: The Man Who Would be King, Rudyard Kipling

This will be a much shorter review than the last one, mainly because it’s a much shorter book.

Book 3 of my challenge was originally going to be another Star Trek book but I’ve decided to leave that till a little later and do some other books first. This one is the first I’ve read of the free, public domain books I’ve downloaded for my Kindle.

The Man Who Would Be King was originally published by Kipling as the title story in a collection with shorter stories but this version stands alone.

The plot is quite simple but brilliant fun. It is told in the first person from the point of view of a British journalist on station in India at the height of the British Empire. In the film version the journalist is portrayed as Kipling himself but his identity is never revealed in the book. The journalist encounters two adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, on a train and they later visit him in his office in Lahore. They inform the journalist that they intend to journey to the least explored areas of the subcontinent. There they will find a backwards tribe and, with knowledge of weaponry and military strategy learnt in the army, help the tribe defeat their enemies and impress the tribe into making them into Kings. Needless to say their quest doesn’t quite go as planned.

The story is a fantastic little adventure and I found myself really wanting it to be longer and flesh out the details. To this end I’d really recommend the film, starring Sir Michael Caine & Sir Sean Connery as Peachy & Dravot and Christopher Plummer as Kipling. The film really uses its extended storytelling abilities to bring to life and embellish Kipling’s story, filling in the many gaps in time the story skips over.

Maybe that review wasn’t too much shorter than last time after all!

Great story but too short, I wanted more! 7/10

50 Book Challenge so far:
Books: 3/50
Pages: 1219/15000

Next up: Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea, Captain W.E. Johns

Book 2: The Teeth of the Tiger, Tom Clancy

I recently finished the third book of my 50 book challenge for and started a fourth so I thought it was time for an update.

As I’d said previously, my first book was the first part of the Deep Space Nine relaunch series, Mission Gamma which consists of four books so I’ll review the series as a whole when I’ve read all of them. That brings us to book 2.

The Teeth of the Tiger by Tom Clancy was, until very recently, the latest book in Clancy’s ongoing Ryanverse series of novels relating the life of John Patrick ‘Jack’ Ryan. Ryan was a reluctant CIA officer who eventually ended up as President, and I’ve loved all the books up to now. TotT however focuses on his son (Jack Jr.) beginning his own intelligence career at a black ops operation known as The Campus.

The whole Jack Ryan Jr. concept was my first clue that this novel would be a departure from the norm. I read this on kindle but I looked at the book in the shop when it came out and I was struck by how much shorter it was than his normal books. They bound it up in a large book to make it look good on the shelf with the others, but the type size and margins are both much larger than average so I’d say it’s about half the length of your average Ryanverse book.

So I mentioned just above that Jack Jr. was working for a new black ops organisation called The Campus and that’s the next problem with this book. The Campus is a private enterprise with a remit to defend the people of the United States through whatever methods necessary. Set up on a direct line between the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland and CIA at Langley, Virginia so that it can intercept all signal communications between the two it has an investment bank as a front that uses intercepted intelligence to make money via investments to fund it’s operations. There are so many plot holes in the description of this place that its totally unbelievable that such a place could ever exist. It’s also totally out of character for Jack Ryan Sr. to have signed off on the place in the first place and he certainly wouldn’t of handed them a pile of signed blank presidential pardons so they’d be safe in the event they were ever rumbled. It’d be too easy for them to get into the wrong hands and an organisation like the campus would easily get out of control.

In all, The Teeth of the Tiger is a passable thriller, but it pales in comparison to the rest of the Ryanverse so I was pretty disappointed.


Book 3 review will follow shortly.

50 book challenge progress:
Books: 2/50
Pages: 1144/15000

The King’s Speech

Today I saw what is definitely an early contender for the best film of 2011.

For those who are unaware of the story, The King’s Speech stars Colin Firth as Prince Albert, Duke of York. As the second son of King George V, Albert, or Bertie to his family, is not first in line to the throne. Nevertheless, he still has many public duties to perform but is held back by a serious speech impediment that caused him to stammer badly whenever speaking and especially in public. After a dreadful experience at his closing speech of the Empire Exhibition in 1925, Albert sought the help of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue.

The film follows the relationship between Albert and Logue through the death of George V, the ascension to the throne of Albert’s brother, Edward VIII, and his eventual abdication leaving Albert as King of a country leading up to war. Now King George VI (Albert considered too Germanic to be used as a Regnal name), he must bring his people together in uncertain times and support them through the war.

Colin Firth is fantastic in a performance that has rightly been pegged for all kinds of awards and shows us vividly all the struggles of growing up in a family as unusual as Albert’s, and what that can do to a person. All the while he is struggling to live up to the expectations of  a family, an institution, a Country and an Empire.

Firth is expertly backed up by Geoffrey Rush, with his usual brilliance, as Logue and Helena Bonham Carter in a role that’s really proved to me that I’d under-rated her as a serious actress, as Elizabeth, Albert’s wife.

Also of note among a stellar cast are Guy Pierce as Edward VIII, Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill and Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The writing in this movie is great. There’s quite a bit of banter between the leads and there are some really hilarious scenes which I really wasn’t expecting considering the seriousness of much of the subject matter.

Overall it’s a fantastic movie and easy to recommend to anyone. I expect it to win lots of Awards in February.

God Save the King!

Dollhouse, Season 1

It’s been a while since my initial post on this blog but I think I’ve decided what I want to use it for now so it’ll hopefully be more frequent from now on.

I came to watch Dollhouse recently with some trepidation. I watched the pilot when it first came out with some excitement. I’ve been a Joss Whedon fan for a while. Buffy was good and Firefly and Doctor Horrible were both fantastic so any new Whedon project was something to be excited about. I sat down to watch it with my fiancée and the pilot was pretty… meh. It just didn’t grab me and the concept made us more than a little uncomfortable. Clearly the concept of the Dollhouse is morally wrong in every conceivable way and there just wasn’t enough acknowledgement of that in the script. Too many of the characters seemed to have no problem with it. So we left it at that and didn’t watch any more.

Over the intervening years, lots of people whose opinions I respect on the subject have recommended it to me and told me that it gets better after the first few episodes so when my fiancée got given it for Christmas and offered to lend it to me, I decided to give it another go.

The pilot is still the same and I still have the same problems that I did with it at the beginning. Morality problems aside, it just isn’t that interesting, and the next few episodes aren’t a lot better. However, in the second half of the season the plot really picks up and twists start coming thick and fast. Episode six, ‘Man on the Street’ is the first episode that’s really any better than average and from then on they get better and better. They also get more and more into the morality of what the characters in the show are doing and it’s delt with a lot better as it goes on. The episode 11-12 two parter that rounds off the season one story line is really exciting, with guest star in Alan Tudyk getting to really show off how fantastic an actor he is.

The real highlight of the set however is episode 13, ‘Epitah One’ that acts as the coda to the series. Set in the far future where the Dollhouse technology is out of control, it stars Felicia Day as the leader of a group of people struggling to survive in that future who stumble upon the long-disused Dollhouse and what they find gives us some teasers into the way the show is going to go in season two.

If they keep up the quality of the last few episodes of this season into season two, I can see it being pretty good, but I don’t think it’ll reach the heights of Whedon’s previous creations.