Monday, 31 May 2010

A Brew by any other name

All aspiring Warlords should know their beverage of choice.

I like a nice cup of tea. And the cup of tea I just had was very nice indeed. But it's not the flavour that was the best thing about this cuppa.

I drink a lot of tea, and a couple of years ago decided it would be a good idea to know what the hell I was drinking. So I sampled some different varieties and It was during this experimental phase that I discovered Rose Pouchong. This is a black tea from South East China, dried between layers of rose petals so that the volatile rose oils (and therefore the flavour), is absorbed. It's a bit like drinking high quality Turkish Delight without the sticky fingers.
Well, back in November 2008, I was coming to the end of my box, and went to look for some more. All the other flavours were available but not the rose. After a fruitless search of supermarkets between London and Birmingham, I sent off an email to their customer services department. I received a very prompt reply explaining that Twinings was having some difficulty obtaining ingredients which, given the tea's origin was easy to understand . I savoured my last teabag, and then switched to Darjeeling.
Then, four months later, and quite out of the blue a package arrived. The Twinings blenders had been experimenting. They had perfected their rose blend, and had sent me a sample packet of loose leaf rose tea!
I was frankly amazed that they had remembered my enquiry at all, and impressed that they would send out a sample on the strength of a 4 month old email enquiry. So I sent an email of thanks. It was the least I could do.

Well, it appears that they kept that email on file, too, because last week,
a full 18 months after my initial email, the Twinings team did it again. Out of the blue, a box of (now rebranded) "Rose Garden" arrived on my doorstep with a personal letter from Pete Rowe their Customer Services Manager.

You don't often see customer services this good, and when you do I think attention should be drawn to the people getting it right. So Laura H, Lindsey and Pete, Thank you, please keep up the good work!

The Twinings website is well worth a visit especially the section on tea production, which is short enough to read while your cup is brewing.

At the time of writing, Twinings have a special offer on. You can sample two of their speciality teas for free, and I suggest you do, the Tea is lovely, and the people are even more so.

- Blogged from my kitchen, while the kettle boils.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Stanza and Deliver!

One of my favourite apps for the iPhone is Stanza, the e-reader from Lexcycle .

The app is highly customisable, with multiple fonts, colours and backgrounds and gives you several options for page turning, scrolling, or swiping to a new page. Second in reading experience only to Classics, it plays a trump card with an in-app link to several sources of books to download, including the Books on Board and Fictionwise eBook stores, and free downloads from Project Gutenberg. Once purchased, your downloads are manageable with a little help from the lexcycle support forums, and the Stanza desktop program. In fact it was so good that Amazon bought them out.

Although Amazon promised not to kill Stanza, there has been a deterioration in user support. There hasn't been an update in a long time, which is a shame, because better file management and ability to transfer several epub files as a batch would be very useful. It doesn't look like there will be an iPad version, and running text rich apps on the iPad is not satisfactory: expanding Stanza to fit the bigger screen renders the text virtually unreadable.

There is also a big problem with the bookstore.

Books on Board have an impressive library, but recently introduced region based restrictions which they dont bring to your attention until you try to buy something from them. Forgive my ignorance, but aren't shops meant to sell things to customers, even online? Why can I order a book online from an America bookstore, but not buy that same book in electronic form?
They also keep a record of your purchases so that you can download them again at any time - a fantastic idea, since computers crash and hard drives fail. But what has really wound me up is that they have now retrospectively introduced geographical restrictions on these too, so I am no longer able to access the books I HAVE ALREADY PAID FOR!

Of course, I have everything backed up locally, but I am pretty pissed off about this. eBooks were meant to be a boon for consumers, not a hassle. We were meant to be able to carry hundreds of books round on compact devices of our own choice, but how can we do that if we aren't allowed to buy their books? It's not even as if are cheap. Considering there are no printing overheads, I would have expected to pay less for a line of code than for a physical book, but then I'm not a copyright lawyer or a bookseller. There is more to come on this subject, but first I need a nice cup of tea, and the subjugation of Abingdon is on my to-do list for this afternoon!

- Blogged from my iPad

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Episode I: A New Toy

A week ago today, I received a text message from PRGeek, who was on holiday in the States. He was holding the last 2 unsold iPads in the USA. Did I want one?
Prior to this, I hadconvinced myself that I would wait until the frenzy had died down after the UK launch. There were too many teething problems with it, no iS
ight camera, no flash, too expensive in the UK, (and of course I couldn't actually get my hands on one).

Did I want one? I organised a "Family trip to the London Eye" so that we could meet him fo
r lunch the day after he got back.

And after a nearly a week, I still can't put it down. And unlikely as it sounds, I'm actually doing a lot of productive thingswith it. Like write my first ever Blog. Here's what I think of it so far:

Surfing (most of) the Internet
Websites load quickly, and look great. A page will fit to a screen really neatly, and although this makes some links too small for fat fingers like mine, the standard pinch/zoom that we all know from our iPhones makes this a non issue. What IS an issue is a lack of Flash.
As a consumer, I don't care about Steve Jobs' personal gripes with Adobe, I want my Inter
net to work. And if I can'twatch an embedded video, or open a page that safari handles perfectly well on my laptop,then I'm going to assume it's a problem with the iPad, not the website!

The keyboard in portrait mode is the perfect size for my crappy 2 fingered typing style, and the numbers and punctuationon separate keyboards will be familiar to anyone with an iPhone. In landscape the keys are a bit bigger an wider spaced. I suspect this is better for a touch typist, but I find it a bit patronising.
I don't remember ever setting it but the autocorrect is using British English, I presume because I synched with an English iTunes account. I like Apple for things like this.

IPod function
The great thing about an iPod is that it's portable. You can carry thousands of tracks in your pocket. You can clip it into a holder on your dashboard, and it doesn't get in the way. By contrast the iPad is never going to be practical as a music device. If you already have an iPod, (and I'm guessing that you do) then this feature is virtually redundant.

On the other hand, the video player is fantastic. Even on a 16Gb I have found enough space amongst my apps for 8 movies. The picture is sharp and the sound quality better and louder than I was expecting, too. This is going to be a lifesaver on long car journeys with a three year old!

The Apps
The app store is still surprisingly sparse considering the US iPad release was month ago. The ability to use iPhone apps is of some benefit, but the way the iPad deals with them is not ideal: when you start an iPhone app, it runs in a virtual iPhone sat in the middle of the screen surrounded by a huge blackborder; your new huge screen is wasted and makes using the floating app a bit clumsy. You are given the option to expand the app to double size,filling the screen, but the app is left pixellated so that text-rich apps look dreadful. Sadly, the worst examples of this that I have used so far are two of my favourite apps on the smaller platform, Flixter and Stanza. The latter is totally unusable on the iPad, and there seem to be no plans to make an iPad version (as it would compete with Kindle).

Some of the graphic-rich apps, particularly the games, do work quite well as expanded versions. Touchgrind, Talking Carl and Topple all cope well with a larger screen. Flight Control and Angry birds work well too, but the HD versions of these work even better, and are not expensive.

There are also a few developers who care enough about their customers to have made their apps iPad friendly in free updates, so congratulations must go to Ancient Frog, IMDb, First Words (for people brave enough to let toddlers near an iPad!) and to the totally awesome Acceleroto Air Hockey.

The productivity apps are looking to be someof the most interesting. I can now link my iPhone camera to the iPad via Bluetooth. I can use my iPad as a second screen on my Mac, and I can even remotely access the desktop on my laptop (which incidentally means that I can use a Flash enabled version of Safari!) but the pick of these has to be Good Reader. Good Reader on the iPhone the screen was just too small to view PDFs reasonably. But the ipad version clearly doesnt have this drawback. It doesn't have the prettiest UI, but its functionality on theiPad is brilliant. You can store and view PDFs, plain text, photos, and play music files. When browsing in Safari, simply add a "g" to thestart of any url, the app will automatically launch and store the page to read later offline.

But some apps have been designed to showcase what the iPad is truly capable of. Beautifully produced, stunning to look at, full of useful information and drawing internet resources for up to date and accurate information, you MUST look at Theodore Gray's "The Elements" (now available as a UK version and spelt properly!). (and reviewed here
Art Authority is an art museum on your iPad, and Solar walk will take you on a flight to the edges of the Solar system. All three of these apps show how beautiful the iPad can be.

So There you have it!
I picked up my iPhone and it felt tiny in my hand. The home screen seemed cramped and the display looked tiny. I switched on my laptop, and felt disconnected from the display by a physical keyboard and mouse.
The iPad is much more visually satisfying than an iPod touch, but not as portable. It is much more and interactive than a laptop, but a little less powerful. You do not need an iPad, but by god you will want one, and rightly so!

Sent from my iPad