Posts in "Technology and apps" Category

A review of family games at the Playstation Playfest

I was recently invited to come along to the Playstation Playfest and asked to bring my family along to try out some of Playstations new games. Now, although I adore computers and spend a frighteningly large amount of my time with them, I was never really a serious gamer. However, my two sons aged 11 and 9 definitely count as serious gamers so with their help I felt I’d have a good opportunity to check out Playstation’s latest offerings and see how well they worked for families. The event itself, held at Sony’s headquarters in London, was extremely well organised and very well designed, with exciting interactive areas (you could try out Dance Star or record your own game voiceover, for example), comfy bean bags, a real chance to get hands on with the games and plenty of snacks and coffee for kids and grown ups. Playstation’s staff were on hand to give us help and advice although frankly all I had to do was unleash the kids and they were happily occupied for the next two hours.

My eldest son made a beeline for Ratchet and Clank: Into the Nexus which he said was an excellent game and very exciting. He was immersed in that for at least twenty minutes and I had to drag him away. We then went to try out Wonderbook: Walking with Dinosaurs which was one of my favourites. It takes full advantage of 3D technology so that the ‘book’, which you interact with using a pointer, can display all kinds of exciting 3D scenes on the screen. My kids were able to answer an interactive dinosaur quiz and then view a fight between two dinosaurs, check out a dinosaurs bones and help rescue a baby dinosaur that was stuck in a mud slide. The children playing also appear on the screen in many scenes so they really feel they are part of the adventure. This is a lot more educational than many games I’ve seen and has the potential to really involve and interest kids. My only worry would be whether it would stand up to being played over and over again: I suppose this would depend on the amount of content and storylines they manage to shoehorn into the game. We also enjoyed Wonderbook: Book of Spells which helps you to make magic spells and potions. The Wonderbook games took real advantage of the ‘wow’ factor of modern technology and all the children I saw playing them seemed thoroughly engrossed.

We tried out recording our own voice overs for adverts and a scene from the Invizimals. Typically again my kids were not as excited by this as I was – they’ve all grown up with Garageband and don’t see why it is amazing being able to edit a sound track in ten minutes. When I trained at BBC Radio we were still taught how to edit tapes using a scalpel and sticky tape, so for me it’s still astonishing that you can have SADiE in your living room. But I digress.

My younger son tried out a game called ‘Tearaway’ for the Playstation Vita (their handheld console) which he says was ‘epic’. Finally we all went to look at the PS4 which had its own room. The children settled down on a giant, hand shaped sofa in front of the screen. The screen showed the children, the sofa and the room. Using a controller, the kids could then make various items such as lots of little robots and a floating droid appear on the screen in the virtual room and interact with them. I found the whole experience slightly baffling but I can see that it could work very well in some games. Here’s a video which will probably give you a clearer picture of the PS4 Playroom.

All in all this was a very enjoyable day and showed me that a lot of the PS4 games can be played in family groups (rather than by Junior on his or her own parked in front of a PC) and can even incorporate some educational material. It’s pretty amazing to be able to construct a 3D dinosaur out of bones and watch it come to life and walk off the page, as happened in Wonderbook: Walking with Dinosaurs. I still wish I’d got my boys to come with me to play Dance Star, but apart from that they tried out nearly everything in the room and the Wonderbook was their top favourite and mine.

How green is Sony? I didn’t ask specific questions about energy efficiency for the consoles on show at this event but generally Sony ranks 8th in Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics and Greenpeace note that their energy efficiency is generally good. This is a respectable score although not outstanding. One environmental plus is that the Playstation 4 will definitely accept used games: as should all consoles, surely?

A review of Acer Laptops and Netbooks for children and students

As many of you may already know, Acer was one of the official sponsors for our amazing 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. They also provided all of the low energy PCs used by LOCOG (the London Organising Committee for the Olympics and Paralympic Games) – 13000 apparently! So when Acer invited myself and several other bloggers and journalists to review their line-up of laptops and tablets over lunch (at the beautiful Spencer House) I said yes. I’m interested in green technology and as a family we get through a lot of laptops. I was particularly interested in their cheaper laptops and netbooks, which I feel are ideal gifts for children and students.

The last laptop we bought ourselves (for my younger son who is now eight) was an Acer as we thought it represented good value for money and it has coped well so far with the usual challenges you would associate with an eight year old owner, such as being sat upon or dropped on the floor, as well as long sessions playing Minecraft…

Their new low-cost range of laptops included the rather attractive 15.6 EasyNote TV Laptop. It costs £399 which is probably more than most people would spend on a laptop for a younger child. However, for a child like my ten-year old, who wants to programme when he grows up and has completed a week of hacking with Young Rewired State, I would definitely consider this for a Christmas present. The graphics seemed clear and crisp and it also felt quite light so would not present too much of a challenge for a child to carry around. My eight year old’s laptop doesn’t bother him in terms of size.

Another feature is that the laptop has built-in social networking ‘one touch’ keys, only to be used when your child is the right age of course! It includes a full version of Adobe Photoshop Elements as well which is great for editing photos and has a battery life of 5 hours. The screen is HD which will be a plus for kids who are gaming or watching movies. It comes in three colours, Ebony Black, Moonstone White and Garnet Red.

Full Specs (from Acer Brochure):
Multimedia capability
15.6-inch HD screen for stunning visuals
Seamless social networking experience – one touch button
Full version of Adobe® Photoshop® Elements pre-loaded

I also looked at the Packard Bell Dot S Netbooks which go from £229 upwards. Like the EasyNote, these have built-in social networking ‘hot keys’. It has a wall mount adaptor instead of the usual AC Adaptor which again means less to carry around and is only 10.1 inches in size so is easy to fit in a bag. Portability is a selling point and Acer suggest it would be great on holiday for example, to upload photos (via Bluetooth or Wifi), edit and then publish them to Facebook or Twitter. You could also record video or make video calls, as it features a webcam. The netbook features a new HDMI® port to connect it to the big screen as well as a third generation Intel® Atom™ processor that decodes motion videos much faster while offering increased power-saving features. It comes in White, Black and Purple.

Full Specs (from Acer brochure)
Packard Bell Dot S netbooks (from £229, depending on spec)
Small and conovenient with an attractive colour palette
Easy-to-use keyboard with one-click hot keys
Social Networking at a touch
HDMI® port and new Intel® Atom™ processor

Full Disclosure: I was invited to review these laptops at an event for tech bloggers sponsored by Acer.

Glossi: your social media life online

I recently got sent an invite to Glossi, an online service that allows you to present all your social media content (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, vimeo, Pinterest, foursquare, tumblr, flickr, Google+ and RSS feed are currently all options) in an attractive, magazine-style format online.

Yawn, I hear you say, not another social network to curate. The great thing about Glossi is it really is a set it and forget it option, similar in function to the excellent Twitter aggregator Paper.li. It has a lovely visual interface and works very well with the links you’ve shared, retrieving the accompanying images and bringing them all together. It seems quite good at avoiding duplication as well. I’d thoroughly recommend this as a way to curate your content. Check out my Glossi here

Spring cleaning your Mac and organising your time

I’ve been trying to clear out my clutter online as well as in my home so I can start 2012 feeling on top of everything! As I work for myself I have to manage myself, so I try and organise my time as efficiently as possible.

Here are some of the tricks and tools I’ve been using that can streamline your life and hopefully, save time and hard disk space.

Sync your task list from Google Tasks to iCal
If you are a Mac user and a Google fanatic like I am, you may find yourself a bit frustrated if you are trying to sync your iCal Task List and your Gmail Tasks List. I’ve found a small app that enables you to do that: it’s called iGtaskforiCal and it’s by Innov8tion software – they also sell a similar syncing tool for Outlook. This is very easy to set up and run and you will find your Tasks lists syncing in no time so that all your Tasks are visible in iCal as well as Gmail and automatically updated when you change either. You can also choose to sync your Gmail calendar to iCal – I’d set mine up already so didn’t enable this option.

I’ve got my Google Calendar syncing on my Android as well (using GTasks, a free app available in the Android Market) and it all works perfectly together. This is great because I can set up a To Do list with dates on it that are viewable in my calendar, and I can view everything on my phone or on my desktop computer. It’s $19.99 (£12.95) at the moment, but it just saves a lot of time and the only free alternative (a work around where you email your To Do’s to Gmail) isn’t really that satisfactory. There’s a free trial.

Clearing out your inbox
Archive all your email and get it out of your inbox. It’s so simple if you have Gmail – just select all your emails and hit “Archive”. Your inbox is automagically empty and you can search for your emails whenever you want, or view them under the appropriate labels if you have set up Filters. If you don’t use Gmail, thenextweb has simple instructions for doing this. I now have a more or less empty inbox which I can quickly declutter each day.

Get rid of duplicates in iPhoto.
I’ve noticed that I have a lot of duplicated images in iPhoto from multiple imports, etc, and as most images I use are quite large they are taking up a lot of disk space. I’ve looked around and the best solution I could find online was Duplicate Annihilator, as Apple does not appear to have an in-house solution for this problem (why not? I don’t know). This is not a free app but searching the first 500 images in your iPhoto library is free in the trial version – it costs $7.95 (£5.15) to buy. I found 12 in my first 500 and the app is currently claiming to have found 1143 while searching the computer – that’s over 1GB of space! You can set it either to trash the duplicates, or just label them so you can double-check.

Increase my productivity using Rescuetime.
This is a free app and well worth investigating. You can set up projects and keep track automatically of the time spent on them: it also automatically categorises everything you do online so you can see exactly how much time you waste on Twitter and browsing shopping sites…I’ve set the app with all my different projects: for the billable ones it’s a big help although you have to set it up quite carefully for it to be accurate. You can set up daily goals (eg more than one hour on writing) and it will send you a report each week telling you how productive you have been. There’s even a widget for your iGoogle page, if you have one set up.

Back up to the Cloud
I’m always terrified of losing data, as I’ve had several hard drives fail on me. I love the ease of use of Time Machine but my elderly back up drive no longer works with it. I could have splashed out on a new one but I decided to investigate online backups instead and discovered Dolly Drive. There are some disadvantages – the first back up takes forever if you don’t use their hard drive service (which is free with some accounts) – but I like the idea of being able to access this data from anywhere and the fact that even if my computer and back up drive were stolen, I’d be able to get hold of all my information again. It’s worth noting that if you back up to Dolly Drive with Time Machine you can’t back up to a local drive as well, so it isn’t a belt and braces solution. However, Dolly Drive allows you to create a bootable clone which you can keep on a hard drive and use to get your computer working if (heaven forfend) the hard disk breaks.

If you fancy doing some more digital decluttering, Lifehacker has a great round up from last year (but still relevant!).

Meal Planning using Google Calendar

This is a great tip I got from this site, Simple Mom. My husband and I had been discussing budgeting for our family food shop (dull, I know) and he mentioned that a colleague at work had a menu plan. My immediate response was “There must be an app for that” but having ransacked the Android Market, iPad apps etc (we are a geeky family) I couldn’t really find anything that worked. However, the Googlel calendar idea works perfectly and is a very fool proof way of planning family meals.

I don’t want to restate everything on the Simple Mom website, but essentially you set up a separate Google Calendar from your usual one (you will need a Google account for this). Each recipe is an “Event” and you can set it to recur every 2 weeks or whatever you want (I set it to two weeks but think we will get bored of that so will probably create a calendar with a month’s worth of meals in it). I put the URL for the recipe (if I’m using one, there are a few dishes I could probably cook blind fold by now) in the “Where” field and the text of the recipe in the “Notes” section. You can then email yourself reminders of what you’re cooking each day (by adding a reminder to each “Event” or recipe).

Why do this? The basic reason is that having a menu plan eliminates waste. If you know what you are going to cook for the week, it is a huge help when doing your weekly shop, stops you ordering too much food (and having to put it in the bin or panic eat it before it hits the use-by date) and helps you keep an eye on whether you are cooking nutritious food for your kids. You can plan things sensibly, for example if you are cooking chicken every second Sunday, you know you will have chicken stock and so make sure you have the ingredients for risotto, soup or whatever you usually make with it. I have now saved my shopping list for each scheduled week in my Ocado account, so all I have to do is bring up “Week 1 Shopping List” in my account and add all the items straight away when doing my shopping online. If you use Epicurious and some other recipe websites, you can also email yourself a shopping list.

To do lists one more post

Photo by Carissa

I didn’t know how fascinating (no, really) the to-do list is as a topic until I started digging around for a nice application to put my to do lists on. I use Google for pretty much everything (I share my calendar with my husband, which gives us a vague chance of remembering important dates such as the end of term) and I put my To-do lists on Google docs, where I can find them easily. This is a popular choice with many people according to Lifehacker, the strangely compelling geek self-help site.

However, one person on Lifehacker recommended Google Mashups and I’ve decided to give it a whirl. It works with your Google account (don’t ask me how) but it has a nice, simple interface, with boxes you can tick when you’ve finished a task and various little labels you can use. Rather like using an old fashioned paper list in fact.

Meanwhile, I won a copy of something called The Pocket Life Book Diary when I entered a competition recently (an occupational hazard for anyone spending a lot of time online). This is produced by a company called Organised Mum (there appear to be no options for dads, organised or otherwise) and just looking at it gave me the reassuring feeling that I, too, could take control of my life by having enough tear-out shopping lists, ‘daily routine planners’ and so on. It’s got a nice cover (important) and you can fit it in your handbag (also important). As someone who was almost incapable of turning up to anything on the right day, let alone at the right time, a decade ago, I’ve had to learn fast since having kids. The first time I was fined five pounds for being five minutes late to pick up my eldest son from nursery was the first time I really understood that once you have children, being forgetful is no longer an option. And if you are the main carer, the number of appointments you have to turn up on time for is astonishing, let alone the amount of stuff you have to remember. Hence my obsession with To-do lists, virtual or otherwise…

Cutting off your nose to spite your Facebook

A Facebook friend recently posted this interesting piece by Tom Hodgkinson (of the Idler fame) about the evils of Facebook on my page. Tom Hodgkinson, who I believe is a classic downshifter living the low-consumption, vegetable-patch cultivating lifestyle we all aspire to nowadays, says that the Facebook founders are baddies because of their neo-con philosophies and the capitalist nature of their businesses.

The piece reminded me of the fascinating time I had in San Francisco during the dot-com boom and the way that people’s politics and their (typically, entrepreneurial) spirit would occasionally seem to be at odds. For example, Craig of craigslist, a droll individual who took to referring to himself in the third person as “the Craig” was a real geek god, having started up a global swapping, dating and chatting bulletin board single handed with very little investment. Craigslist was a non-profit, but eventually it made “the Craig” personally very successful – and I for one would certainly say ‘why not’? I met enough Burning-man attending, blue-haired Internet start-up squillionaires to realise that the Internet was making a lot of people with quite radical politics unexpectedly rich. In California, political activists on the Left were as wired as their opponents. I spent some time working for a media pressure group called Media Alliance which campaigned on such arcane topics as “free access to ISP’s”. In San Francisco, if you rang people up to try and get their opinion about this, they’d frequently know what you meant (much to my astonishment). I’m sure there were plenty of people in California who rejected all the marvels of technology for political reasons, but I only met one, and he lived at the top of a sequoia tree.

The Facebook founders are clearly a lot more straightforward than the 90’s Internet entrepreneurs, being from a second or probably (by now) third wave, and are just trying to make money. They came up with a great free social networking site (it’s so annoyingly simple, but it works) and are now trying to work out how to make it a bit less free, hence the annoying adverts and really dreadful ideas like Beacon (which they didn’t try over here, thankfully) which told all your friends what you’d been buying on the Internet (puh-lease!!!). But I really don’t know if spurning Facebook a la Tom Hodgkinson is the way to protest about it, should you wish to.

a) all your friends are probably on it, so unless you can force them all to migrate to Bebo or Ning or Myspace or something, you will have to communicate with them in old-fashioned ways such as the telephone. And that is so.. last century. b) you can use Facebook to communicate your disdain! “Facebook, stop invading my privacy” or “Facebook applications know more about me than my family does” are two groups I found for Facebook haters c) you could join with a false identity and subvert the system from within, as an imposter a friend of mine got landed with recently did d) it’s all a fad, it’ll die out in ten minutes anyway. Won’t it?

Facebook fraud and other nasties

Now our caring government has inadvertently shared the names, addresses, birth dates and bank account details of all the 25 million people in this country who have children with potential fraudsters and criminals (aren’t you amazed they could fit all that on two CD-Roms?), we are going to have to be a bit more vigilant about our security online. Eek.

First of all, there’s Facebook, which I like but gives potential fraudsters access to our birthdates, phone numbers, addresses and anything else we are trusting enough to post online: especially if we don’t take care with our privacy settings. Check out this link for a quick Facebook detox.

Hmm. Makes you think twice about ID cards, doesn’t it?

I was feeling quite smug, having been reasonably cautious about Facebook, but then read a scary blog post about Tagged. I signed up for this because a friend sent me an invite, but got nervous at the bit where it asked me for my gmail and hotmail account passwords (I’d already given those to Facebook … oops. I won’t do that again. Not really worth it to contact people you already know). This turned out to be lucky because it apparently then spams people on your email contacts list.. forever. So my own friends have had a lucky escape, but it hasn’t stopped Tagged from spamming me with friend requests from teenage boys. I’ve now cancelled my account and unsubscribed, so am hoping that will be it.

My online bank account is so hard to get into that I’ve now given up, and returned to the unopened envelope system (stick it on the pile, and hope it goes away!), so here’s hoping any potential thieves feel the same way. But the best way to find out about fraud is to read your bank statements. So ignorance is no longer bliss.

To Do List Blog

This struck a chord with me, as my life is governed by undone To-Do Lists, which have been annoying me now since I did my first To-Do List probably aged about sixteen. Mine are exceptionally dull, however, compared to some of the To-Do Lists on here. Only in America, I have to say, would they have a To Do List Slam. The mind boggles.