If you’re here, it’s because you’re a cheapskate. That’s the words of free software, services and music guru Duncan Geere and if you couldn’t make it to his talk at the Gadget Show Live, then get yourself a cup of tea, a pen and paper and learn how rule the IT world without paying a penny for the privilege.
Zara, Duncan, Chris and I spent last weekend up at the Birmingham NEC for the Gadget Show Live meeting hundreds of Tech Digest readers and making plenty of new friends while we were there too.
We had a fantastic response from our series of 30-45 minute “How To Theatre” guides to everything from HDTVs to free music and software but for those that couldn’t make it up there for the day, or those who couldn’t scribble everything down fast enough, we’ve compiled them into written form for you to digest, consider and cogitate at you leisure:
How To Theatre Talks
I can’t work out whether this is just the craziest idea I’ve ever come across. Or the work of an inspired genius. I think probably the former. Featured on Dragons Den last year (they understandably didn’t back it), Fake TV is, well, a Fake TV. It’s intended to deter burglars though I think it might just encourage them if they think you’ve got a big telly worth nicking
You don’t have to have an expensive camera to take fantastic pictures. I’m not going to say that it doesn’t help but the fact is that a lot people haven’t fully explored the one they’ve already got whether it’s a compact camera, a cameraphone or indeed a digital SLR. So, this is a guide for those people with a fledgling interest in photography of how to take better photos and get the most out of your camera.
Before we get into the all the switches, modes and buttons, it’s important to have an understanding of what it is the camera does when you take a photo. Once you’ve got an idea about how they work, then you can start manipulating them to get the kinds of shots you see in your mind’s eye before they come out totally different on your camera’s LCD.
At its most simple, a camera is a box with a hole at the front which you use to control the amount of light coming in. The pattern of light is then recorded at the back of the box either on light sensitive film or, these days, on an image sensor which is the part you’ll hear measured in megapixels. The more the sensor is exposed to light, the brighter the image will be.
You can make the hole at the front bigger and you can make it smaller and you can also decide how long the hole is open for. So, the idea is that you’ve got two ways that you can control the amount of light coming into the box.
The size of the hole is called the aperture and in cameras that’s denoted by the letter f followed by a number usually somewhere between 2 and 22. The higher the number the smaller the hole. So, if your camera’s set to an f-stop of 22, then the aperture’s very small and you’ve hardly got any light coming in. If it’s at 2 then it’s masssive and you’ve got light from the outside world pouring in – very useful if you’re shooting in low light.
Now, obviously you don’t want the aperture open all the time as you wouldn’t be able to ever stop light coming into the camera. So there’s a shutter in front of it which moves out of they way when you press the shutter release button – the main shooting button on the camera. We can choose how long the shutter is out of the way for. It’s usually measured in fractions of a second and, of course, the longer you set it for, the more light comes in and the more exposed the image becomes That’s the shutter speed.
Now, the other tricky thing about shutter speed is that the longer the shutter is open for, the more movement plays a factor and if the subject of your photo is not standing still then your photo will come out blurred. So, long shutter speeds are fine to use in dark conditions but only if the subject of your photo is static.
Once you’d controlled how the light comes into the camera, the only other difference you could make with old film cameras was to choose how sensitive to light your film was going to be. It was called the speed of the film because it was about how quickly the film reacted light. Typically you used to go and buy your Kodak film with a speed of somewhere between 100 and 400 and it was quoted in ASA.
These days, of course, not many people use film but the image sensor works in much the same way and you can set it to whatever light sensitivity you like. The only difference is that it’s now quoted in ISO just to confuse you but the scale is essentially the same.
A low ISO means that the film isn’t particularly sensitive to light, so it’s good for bright sunny days. If it’s pretty dark where you’re taking photos you’d want your camera set to a high ISO so that it’ll be very sensitive to the small amount of light available and so still be able to take a decent picture.
So, having a camera with a good ISO range, 100-6400 for example, is important so that you can take good pictures at low light levels and that’s important so that you can follow the first tip of beginners photography:
TIP 1: DON’T USE THE FLASH
Don’t get me wrong here. The flash is a fantastic invention. It’s a brilliant way of providing light when there isn’t enough naturally to take a photo. The only trouble is that it’s very hard to use well.
It’s a whacking great, blue, artificial light source that creates a whole shadow and perspective that isn’t there and, nine times out of ten, you’ll end up with a photo that doesn’t look much like the scene you’re trying to capture.
Worse still, and probably the greatest flash crime of all, is when people use the flash to take photos of objects far away. All the happens is that the flash goes off and reflects all the light back off objects in the foreground leaving the background virtually black. The classic example is a sun set. You’ve got low light conditions, so your camera will flash which will bring the trees in the foreground up lovely and bright and make the all the beautiful colours in the distance look like night.
Most cameras will try to pop up the flash at the first sniff of low light because it’s the manufacturers job to make sure that your camera will offer a properly exposed image whether it’s the one you’re trying to take or not. Compact cameras are paricularly bad for this and it’s often a good idea to turn the flash off except for when it’s really just too dark to get anything at all.
TIP 2: SCENE MODES
Manufacturers have realised in the last few years that sometimes you’ll need to tell the camera what it is that you’re trying to take a picture of so that it can make sure it doesn’t accidentally ruin your shots with the flash and instead it can adjust the aperture and shutter settings to something more suitable.
So, now you’ll see 10 or 20 scene modes on your camera with little pictures next to them for just about any occasion you could want to take a snap. There’s ones for night scenes, candlight, snow scenes, sports scenes, baby mode, sunsets and all sorts of others. Each one represents a different selection of shutter speed, aperture, ISO and focus settings which will be most appropirate for capturing your shot. Most of them are really well designed, so do use them because they will give you better pictures.
Thankfully cameras are getting even better at working out what it is you’re trying to take pictures of and a lot of them these days have an intelligent scene mode, or intelligent auto it might be called, which will guess what you’re doing. So, if you’re not sure what the scene is, just set it to intelligent auto and it’ll do the work for you. It won’t always get it right but some makes are better than others at doing it.
TIP 3: MACRO
One mode you’ll find very useful is macro mode. Macro photography is all about taking images in extreme close up. You won’t find it on most DSLRs because you’ll need special macro lenses but all good compacts will have a macro mode, some of which will allow you to take images at distances of just 1cm and it’s defintely worth using if you are trying to capture very fine detail.
TIP 3: ZOOM
All compacts and most DSLRs will come with some sort of lens that allows you to zoom in and out of your subject. Bear in mind that digital zoom is not the same as optical zoom. Optical zoom is true zoom and maintains quality at all times whereas digital zoom will bring the image closer to you but will pixelate the image at the same time.
When zooming right up close on a subject, it’s very hard to keep the camera still. In bright light it’s not so much of a problem because you can still use fast shutter speeds to prevent blur, but in low light with a slower speed, it’s almost impossible to get a sharp shot.
There’s two major ways to avoid it. One is to use a tripod but that’s a pain to carry around and even more annoying to set up. So, the next best thing is to switch on your camera’s image stabiliser funtion. If it’s DSLR it might have one in the shape of vibration reduction, if it’s a compact it’ll probably have two with another called something along the lines of image stabilisation. Switch them on and you’ll get a steadier picture. If you really want to pull out all the stops, you could try putting the camera in sports mode too which will force it to shoot at the fastest shutter speeds it can.
At the other end of the scale, it’s worth noting that when you shoot in wide angle, it will, of course, distort everything in the foreground. Now that’s fun and interesing for an album cover but if you’re taking snaps of your other half it will probably make them look very ugly and they will probably throw the camera at your head when you show them the photo of their face that looks like its reflected in the back of a spoon. A lens set at 50mm zoom is where you want to be at for portraits.
TIP 4: FOCUS
Out of the box, most cameras will automatically focus on whatever is in the middle of the frame. A lot of the time that’s ok but often you’ll want the subject of your shot to be off-centre, in which case, there’s few bits and pieces you can do.
One good trick is to put your subject in the middle of the frame, half press the shutter release so that your camera auto-focuses and then, keeping that button half pressed, you can move the frame to where you want it and push down the rest of the button to take the shot without it refocusing.
The trouble is that a lot of cameras won’t let you do that. Cameraphones are particularly bad for this. But help is at hand in all sorts of different ways. Scene modes are useful here again. You can tell the camera that you’re taking a landscape shot and it will make sure it’s focused in the distance no matter what you put in the foreground. Better still are modes such as face detection which will automatically identify any faces in frame an focus in on them wherever they are.
On DSLRs there are lots of different focus settings to play with. You can chose the size and sector of the frame that you’d like to use for the focal reference or quite a good one is to use the AF lock button that most have. It works on the same principle as holding the shutter release button half way down only this time, it’s a button all to itself which you’ve got to keep your thumb on.
Lastly, if you still can’t get the focus as you want it, you can always just switch to manual mode which you’ll usually find as a switch on the side of the lens.
TIP 5: WHITE BALANCE
Sometimes you’ll find that your the colours in your photographs don’t look as they should and usually that’s because the white balance is off. White balance is done automatically most of the time but sometimes you’ll need to tell your camera what white actually looks like so that it can accurately reproduce all the other colours. You’re essentially giving it a point a reference to work from.
You’ll often see the effects of bad white balancing when you take photos under strip lighting, which is a lot bluer than natural light, or bulb light which is a lot more yellow. Most cameras will have a number of different presets for white balance with pictures next to the them for bulbs, shadows, cloudy weather and all sorts of other light conditions. Pick the right one and you’ll notice all the colours start to look a hell of a lot better.
Higher end cameras allow you to manually set the white balance by focusing the lens on a uniform white surface – usually a wall or a piece of paper. It’ll give a more accurate representation of your particular light conditions than a preset value and you’ll get better shots. Worth using if you have the time.
TIP 6: EXPOSURE CONTROL
Sometimes you can set your camera to the right mode, you can have what you think are the perfect aperture and shutter speed settings but still you’re not getting the photo you want.
Most of the time, it’ll be because the camera is taking its light reading from the wrong place. If you look at the pictures below of my untidy desk and monitor, I’ve metered the light on screen in the one on the left and you can’t see anything else but if, like on the right, you meter on a darker part of the frame then it’ll make sure that all those parts are bright enough at the expense of the screen which comes across unusually bright.
You can do that before you take the shot by using the AE-Lock button on a DSLR much as the same we did with the AF-lock but a simpler way you can do it is with exposure control which the +/- button you’ll find on all cameras
It’s basically a brightness setting. It won’t change the brightness of certain objects in your photos relative to others but it will lighten or darken the whole image so that you can at least see what it is you’re trying to capture.
TIP 7: BRACKETING
This function is generally only available on DSLRs but this is where exposure control really comes into its own. If you’re not quite sure how over or underexposed you want your image to be, some cameras will let you take a bunch of photos of the same image in rapid fire and with a different exposure setting each time.
You can set how many shots you want to take and at what brightness intervals you want to choose. You end up going through a lot of shots but you’re guaranteed to capture the mood you’re after and, since it’s digital photography, you can just delete all the ones you don’t like; which brings me onto my next tip…
TIP 8: TAKE LOTS OF PHOTOS
It sounds obvious but memory cards are cheap as chips these days. You can pick up 4GB SDs for a fiver on Amazon which can store hundreds of hi-res images.
You’re not going to run out of space, you’re not wasting any resources and you can always delete anything you don’t like later. Just let rip, paricularly when you’re happy with how you’ve set your camera up for your environment, and when you’ve found a subject you’re interested in.
Work it from all angles, from differing distances and sometimes don’t even look. I’ve taken some excellent photos shooting from the hip. It’s fun, you can catch people of guard and you’ll be surprised how interesting the shots look. It works particularly well with good DSLRs because they’re much better at taking instant shots and much better at coping with with any bizarre focusing issues and light conditions you might be randomly throwing at it.
TIP 9: FRAMING & COMPOSITION
Before the invention of Photoshop and other picture editing software, if photography wasn’t all about exposure, it was about framing. Getting a shot framed right is probably the most artistic part of photography but if you’re not naturally good at it, don’t worry you will get better. You can always crop your shots anyway.
One of the joys of photography is discovering your own style and it’s not really the place of a tech blog to start telling you all about the finer points of art but there are a couple of basic ideas that are worth bearing in mind.
The first is to make sure you’ve got a some foreground in your shots as well as background. You’ll often see very dull landscape shots that never really capture the beauty of a scene. Landscapes are some of the hardest pictures to take well but if you add some foreground like a dead tree or some cattle and suddenly your picture has life and context. Photos with an excellent composition will lead the eye through from foreground to background.
Probably my favourite framing tip is the rule of thirds which simply put says not to place your subject directly in the middle of the frame. It’s not very interesting and it’s not particularly imaginative.
Instead, place the subject one third of the way over from either the top, bottom, left or right of the frame and you instantly have something that looks better. When a shot is uneven, it adds an imbalance and a conflict to the eye and that creates drama in your photography. Most cameras come with a grid overlay to help you find the thirds of the frame but you’ll probably find you can do it just as well by eye.
There’s plenty of other bits and bobs you can pick up on framing and composition if your read around or through your own trials, but these are a good place to start. My only other advice would be to try to think away from the obvious shot. Experiment at being too close or at an angle see what you come up with instead.
TIP 10: COLOUR CONTROL
Mess around with the colour settings on your camera. Some compacts and all DSLRs come with colour control presets which are defintely worth exploring and the two I would heartily recommend are Vivid colour mode and Black & White. The Vivid mode is fantastic if you’re on holiday somewhere bright and exotic. It makes all the colours look beautiful and gives you some really stunning shots. If I shoot in colour, I usually have the setting to Vivid.
My personal favourite at the moment is probably black and white photography for a number of reasons. One is that it’s very forgiving. It makes every shot look like an instant classic from a photo of a mountainside to a quick snap of some bloke on the train. It brings out textured sufaces beautifully which might ordinarily be missed in colour.
The other great area for black an white is in portraits. It flattens most skin tones, removes most blemishes and you’ll generally find that even the most camera shy will be quite happy with how you capture them in black and white.
DSLRs will let you set your own colour modes by adjusting the contrast, colour and brightness and save them for later use. Well worth doing if you own a DSLR and, for my money, well worth buying one for.
TIP 11: LIGHTING
I’m not going to suggest you go out and biy a set of lights but I would tell to keep an eye on from where it is your shot’s illuninated. Side lighthing is nice and dramatic, front lighting is great if you want to capture a bright, blue sky and although backlighting is trickier to get the hang of in terms of getting the exposure levels right, it’s well worth experimenting with.
TIP 12: MESS AROUND WITH SHUTTER SPEED
You’ll probably end up with a lot of badly exposed and blurred shots 90% of the time but you can get some fantastic results with longer exposures. It works particularly well if only one element of your composition is moving while the others stay still. The classic examples are photos of waterfalls where the water blurs and it can looks like sugar or mist for magical, if slightly cheesy, effects but probably the most fun is night scenes such as the blur of car lights around a city scene at night.
You’ll generally need to use tripods for these shots and with the night exposures you’ll need to use bulb or B mode on your camera which allows you to hold down the shutter release for as long as you want. In general, if you’re shooting handheld, you probably don’t want to go any lower than 1/60th of a second to be guaranteed sharp shots.
There’s all sorts of other tips and tricks of photography but that’s certainly enough to work with as far as a beginners guide goes. If you’ve got to grips with all of that lot and you still want more, it’s probably time to start forking out for some more equipment, and perhaps a good place to start would be working out how to actually use the flash.
What are the considerations when you buy an HD TV? Well, the first thing to note is that if you’re buying something new, it’s actually hard not to buy an High Definition set of some sort but, of course, there are a lot of different types of HD and lots of different panels out there, so how do you know which one’s for you?
Probably the most important thing to know is how much HD content do you want to watch and how much will you be able to. There’s actually not a hell of a lot of full 1080p HD content out there at the moment.
Sky broadcasts the most at the moment with 36 channels in full HD including BBC HD, all the sports channels and some film channels too. HD programs take up a hell of lot of bandwidth to beam out to people’s homes but Sky can do that because it’s a satellite platform and you can send a hell of a lot of information between satellite dishes.
So, if you’ve got Sky already and you want to get HD programming, then you’re in luck. All you’ll need to do is buy your HDTV, plug it in as usual and Bob’s you uncle, HD in your living room.
Your only other options for HD broadcasts right now Virgin who has just the one HD channel in the shape of BBC HD and Freesat, the free, non-subscription based satellite service from the BBC and ITV. There is a set up charge in that you’ll need a satellite nailed to the the roof of your house and you’ll need a decoder box or a Freesat tuner built-into your TV too but, otherwise, it’s free. At the moment they have just two HD channels – BBC HD and ITV HD – but they have the potential and ambition for a hell of a lot more.
Something like Freeview, on the other hand, currently offers no HD programming and, although they say that they’re going to offer up to four, that’s really as much as they’ll ever have. The reason is that, unlike Sky and Freesat, they’re not a satellite system. They use a certain portion of the electromagentic specturm just like radio but they don’t have very much bandwidth to play with, so, as it stands, they’ll never be able to offer much in the way of HD.
So, if you’ve got Sky, you’re in luck. You’ve got HD as soon as you’ve got you TV. If not then I’d recommend looking out for TVs that have Freesat tuners built in.
That’s all the broadcasters but there are two other ways you can get high-definition content on your HDTV. BLu-rays offer you full HD films and the PS3 and Xbox 360 Elite give you games in full HD too. You can still get 720p HD gaming on the other Xbox 360 models but I’ll get to the difference between 1080p and 720p in a bit. In fact, I’ll do it now.
Screen Resolution – 720p or 1080p
You should now have an idea of how much HD content you’ll be able to get once you’ve bought an HDTV, what it might cost extra to get more HD channels and whether it’s worth you right now buying a Full HD 1080p panel. It may not be. If you’re not going to get much HD progamming you can save you money and buy something 720p instead.
Very quicky and simply, the 720 or 1080 refers to the number of rows of pixels a TV panel will have. The more pixels there are the better the details is going to be. Standard definition or SD sets have 576 rows of pixels, so 720p is already much better than that and 1080p is has around five times the detail of SD. Be careful not to confuse 1080i with 1080p. They are very different. For an excellent description of the difference between i and p watch the video below.
Of course, 1080p panels are going to be more expensive but you needn’t shelll out on one just because it offers better resolution. As we’ve already seen, you might not have that much access to 1080p content but also it’s probably not worth splashing out on all that fine detail if you’re going to be buying a very small TV or if you’re going to sit along way way from it. It’s effectively the same thing. Either way, you won’t really be able to appreciate all that wonderful detail because the picture will be too small.
As a rule of thumb, the optimum viewing distance away from a 1080p HDTV is around 1.5 x the screen size. Therefore you should be sitting around 48″ or 4ft away from a full HD 32″ screen. So, consider saving yourself some cash with a 720p screen if you only want a small panel or you’re going to sit a long way from it.
A lot of people will tell you that the next most important feature of a TV is contrast. Contrast is the difference in brightness between the darkest colour on your TV and the brightest part at any given time. You’ll see it as a ration of a very large number to one. A TV with a dynamic contrast of 50,000:1 means that the brightest colour is 50,000 times brighter than the darket colour it can produce. The better the contrast the larger that first number will be. A low contrast ration will mean that there’s not a lot of depth in colour palate and it’ll look fairly lifeless and unexciting.
LCD manufactures have pumped a lot of money into contrast in the last few years because that was one of the early complaints of LCD technology. LCDs are backlight by bright bulbs and it was very hard to get good deep blacks because of the light spill from those back bulbs. If you can’t get good blacks then the difference between the brightest colours and the darkest colours is going to be much less, you’re contrast is going to be much worse and you picture won’t look very good.
Maufacturers seem to have got on top of this recently, though, and you’ll see all sorts of enormous and probably unmeasurable contrast ratios like 1,000,000:1. I wouldn’t take these as gospel but what I would do when you go into a showroom is make sure that they haven’t turned the contrast levels all the way up on the remote to impress you with the colours. It will look colourful but also very unnatural. Particulalry with skin tones. People’s faces will look red. So, make sure you take hold of the remote or get the salesman to show you that the contrast is at a normal level.
Another trick they’ll often try is to turn the brightness down to make sure that the colours look strong and not washed out on sets that aren’t good at showing blacks. It’s another artificial way of making the colours look better but if you bought that set and took it home you’d find that the dark scenes in films look terrible. They’ll be very flat, you won’t be able to see shadows and you’ll miss all the subtelties that the filmmaker intended. That’s why they call ramping up the brightness like that “crushing the blacks” because it kills all the nice, rich, dark moody scenes.
A final tactic is to have some sets under heavy ambient lighting with others in much darker areas of the show room. It’ll make the pictures look very different so bear in mind that a good picture in a very dark room will look a lot less punchy when the lights are up. One way you can get around this is by cupping your hands around your eye and putting them up to the TV screen.
You’ll be blocking out the ambient light and it’ll give you an idea of how good the blacks are.I’d also watch out too for demo discs of cartoons. It’s very hard to judge how natural a picture looks when you’re shown animation.
So, we know about resolution, we know about contrast. The next is probably the real bugbear for me. That’s frame rate. There’s a few differnt terms that mean more or less the same thing but what we’re talking about is the speed at which the picture on your screen refreshes itself.
As we saw at the beginning when we were talking about the difference between 720p, 1080p and 1080i, the screen has to refresh itself in order to get a moving picture. If it didn’t ever refresh itself then we’d all be looking at the same frame for ever. It’d just be a very expensive photo frame. So, your TV works a little like a flicker book.
What you TV is doing is flicking through the pages so quickly that the eye can’t normally see it. The standard rate that most TVs refresh is at 50Hz, so they do it 50 times each second. Now, normally that’s fine but if the action on the screen is very quick then it won’t look very smooth. Imagine if someone took out every other page of your flicker book. It’s not normally a problem but there are two classic examples in TV watching where you’ll notice it – action films and sport.
You might have seen a bad TV in a pub showing football and you can barely see the passes properly. It sort of has a bit of dream-like or slightly nightmarish qulaity about it and you can’t quite work out what’s going on. That’s because it has a terrible frame rate and the trouble with new TV’s is that they’re getting bigger and as the screen gets bigger, it magnifies all the problems that the set may have.
So, what many manufacturers do now is offer sets with much quicker frame rates. You can buy LCDs that run at 100Hz and even 200Hz now to. They’ll give you much smoother pictures with little or no blur and personally I woudn’t buy anything at less than 100Hz – certainly not for your main TV.
There might be a few other things to consider with your TV such as power consumption. Some panel manufacturers will talk about their green credentials and those TVs will probably save you around £50-£100 in energy bills per year. On the whole, plasma screens are more power hungry than LCDs but they’re beginning to address that now. Besides, although it’s not as clear but as it used to be, you are generally getting a better picture on a plasma but you will be paying a lot for it too.
Perhaps the last important point to discuss is HDMI sockets. HDMI cables are a winderful invention because it’s a way of connecting the audio and video streams to your TV and between other bits of home cinema kit in just one cable each time.
You’ll want your TV to have a good two or three HDMI slots and you should make sure that it’s the newer HDMI 1.3. The newer standard offers billions of colours rather than millions, it’s better at synching up the audio and video and it’s a good place to futureproof your TV because it can also cope with even more resolution than 1080p.
If you’re serious about you TV and film experience, you might want to consider getting your sound properly set up as well and that’s where all the rest of the home cinema kit comes in but be warned it can all get very expensive.
Traditionally because of the shallow speaker cabinets on flat screen TVs, many models haven’t offered very good sound. These days manufacturers have spent more time looking at the problem and it’s worh watching out for those which have been acoustically tuned by sound engineers. For example, there’s legend in the industry called Mark Levsinson who LG has no got working with them.
But if that’s not enough for you, then you’re going to need a AVR (audio/video receiver) which is a home cinema amplifier. It takes the audio and video from one source – for example, a Blu-ray player – and routes the audio and video signals out without degrading them. It works really nicely with DVDs and Blu-ray discs because the sound track acutally encoded on those discs can then be decoded by your AVR and sent to all the right speakers for the perfect sound experience.
That’s where all the bizarre sounding speaker set up configurations come in. A 5.1 set up refers to having two front speakers (left and right) to rear speakers (left and right) and one centre speaker that you should place either behind, below or above the TV screen. The .1 refers to the subwoofer which can place anywhere in the room.
You can just use two stero speakers at the front of the room if you want to save a little cash but, if you really want to go for it, you can add an extra centre speak at the rear of a 5.1 to make it into a 6.1, you can a place central surround speakers in between your fronts and rears on each side of a 5.1 to make it a 7.1 or, for the full whammy, you can chuck in two more for a 9.1. The additions are actually limitless but of, course, you’ll start to see deminishing returns.
You can buy all in one systems or you get the AVR and speaker sets seperately but bear in mind that it’s worth spending more on the fronts than the others and don’t spend more than double the cost of the fronts on your AVR. Keep the front speakers equidistant from where you sit and angle them in slightly with, if you can fit it, the tweeters at ear level.
Good makes to consider are home cinema kit are Denon, Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer and Yamaha among others and make sure that your AVR and BD players support either, or ideally both, DTS and Dolby Surround sound.
So, now that you’ve digested all of that lot, it’s time to measure up your rooms, count your cash and get down to the shops. I’d advise going to see the equipment first hand before you make your mind up and them going back and buying it online. You’ll often get a better price and 14 day money back period not always available in the shops.
In this post, I’m going to tell you how to fill your computer with quality software that doesn’t cost anything. We’ll cover everything from the ground up – starting with the operating system, and then looking at web browsers, antivirus, email, office applications, and music, video, photo and instant messaging apps.
So let’s start with the question: “Why use free software?”. It’s a bit like that bit in an interview where you get asked ‘Why do you want this job?’. ‘Because I have rent to pay’ doesn’t normally cut it as an answer, but in this case it’s okay to be a cheapskate. Free software’s biggest benefit is simply that it doesn’t cost anything.
The benefits don’t stop there, though. Free software also means that you can try things out, tinker with different programs, without wasting cash. If you don’t like a bit of software, you don’t have to try to get a refund from whoever sold it to you – just uninstall.
Let’s start, then, at a very basic level – the operating system. You might be happy with Windows, or get Windows bundled with your PC, in which case you can sleep through the next minute or so. Right, those of you still awake – if you’re not happy with Microsoft’s world domination, though, then you might want to give Linux a try.
Linux has been around for a long time. It was originally based on Unix, which was released in 1970, but the GNU project – which Linux derives from – only kicked off in 1984. You might have heard that it’s difficult to use, or tricky, but there’s a version that exists that’s extremely user-friendly. It’s called Ubuntu.
Ubuntu, unlike Windows, releases new versions every six months or so. It’s built to be simple and fast, and is pre-loaded with free and open-source software. It won’t run everything that Windows might – it’s still a minority operating system – but it does have a component called WINE that can emulate Windows, so you can run programs that aren’t compatible (if a little slower) through that.
So, that’s the operating system sorted. What’s next? A web browser is almost always first on my list. The best bit of advice I could give to anyone with a computer is to ditch Internet Explorer and download either Firefox or Chrome to use instead. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, so let’s look at both.
I’ll start with Firefox, because it’s more widely used and known. Firefox is made by the Mozilla foundation, and will change the way you access the web thanks to its add-ons. These are little programs that complement your browser – doing everything from blocking adverts, to displaying a weather forecast or letting you take screenshots of websites. If you can imagine it, they’ll do it. It’s also faster and more secure than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
Chrome, on the other hand, is made by Google and sacrifices some of Firefox’s features for blazing speed. Chrome is wonderful because it just gets out of the way. The tabs are in the title bar, and the navigation icons are small, leaving maximum real estate for the actual page. It feels roomy, intuitive and just plan fast.
If you like features, add-ons and themes, then give Firefox a try. If you don’t care about any of that – you just want websites, and fast – then download Chrome. Both are considerably more secure than Internet Explorer, updated frequently, and – most importantly – absolutely free.
Even though you’re now more secure, there’s always the risk of viruses, so you better get a viruschecker. That aging copy of Norton that came installed on your PC but which ran out of its free trial a long time ago is like a leaky condom. It isn’t going to protect you one bit. But don’t worry – it’s easy to get free antivirus too.
Both Avast and AVG offer constantly updated virus protection absolutely free to the home user. Personally I use Avast, because I think Pirates are awesome, but there’s not a whole world of difference so just pick one and try it out. If you don’t like it, then uninstall and try the other. The companies offer the free version to home users as a marketing strategy – the idea being that they get their name out and businesses pay for the enterprise versions of the software.
Next up is email. Now, I know you’ve probably got Outlook set up with the email address supplied by your internet provider, but I want you to do me a favour – I want you to try out Google’s mail service – GMail. It’s absolutely excellent.
First of all, it will interface with just about any pre-existing email system, so there’s no need to change your email address – just set it up in GMail. Then you’ll notice the radically different interface, with messages grouped into conversations – not just discrete lumps of data – and tags replacing folders. It’s wonderful, and makes so much sense.
Then you’ll notice that you’re no longer getting any spam. Gmail’s spam filters are some of the best I’ve seen. I’ve had a GMail account for probably about five years now, and I could count on one hand the amount of times I’ve had spam creep into my inbox, or lose a real message to the spam folder. They’ve really got this one cracked.
Lastly, there’s the convenience of accessing it from anywhere. On any machine, you can just go to gmail dot com and view your emails. No hassle. Even if you’re away from your computer, there are gmail applications for every mobile device you can think of. No more excuses for not replying to that email. Sorry.
If you still really hate GMail then there’s an alternative. Thunderbird, which is the email-y cousin of Mozilla’s Firefox. It has the same extensions infrastructure as Firefox does, and it’s still light, fast and packed with features. Those who aren’t quite comfortable with web-based email should be quite happy with Thunderbird as an Outlook replacement.
That’s the essentials – an operating systems, a browser, antivirus and email checked off. We’ll have some fun with music and video in a minute, but first let’s look at free office suites, because we all have to work occasionally.
OpenOffice and Google Docs are the two choices that I’ll tell you about today. The former – OpenOffice – is downloadable software, but Google Docs is web-based.
OpenOffice pretty much does most of the stuff that Microsoft’s Office suite does – so if you’re used to that, then you’ll feel right at home. There’s an equivalent bit of software for Word, Excel, Access and Powerpoint, as well as a powerful drawing tool, too.
Each one isn’t quite as polished as the Microsoft eqivalent, but they’re all perfectly functional. They can read and save in Microsoft formats and will do pretty much anything that a normal user would need it to do. The package is completely free, and you can download it from openoffice dot org
Then there’s Google Docs. This, like GMail, is another ‘cloud’ service where you just use your web browser to do everything. It’s nowhere near as fully featured as OpenOffice – in fact it’s fairly simplistic, but it has the benefit of being accessible from anywhere. If you need to create something simple, or perhaps tweak a more complex document, then you should have no problems at all.
Right – onto the entertainment section. We don’t just use our PCs for work, right? We use them for music, video, photos, and chatting with family and friends. I like music, so let’s start with that.
Last.fm is a good place to start. The site carries that name because they want to be the last radio station you’ll ever need. It records what you listen to via plugins on your media player and then intelligently recommends you stuff that it thinks you might like based on that. You can then click ‘love’ or ‘ban’ on the recommendations and it’ll adjust accordingly.
Spotify is wonderful. I can’t say enough nice things about it. It looks a bit like iTunes, except that it’s got almost every song ever on it, and they stream in microseconds. Lastly, what about all those hundreds of MP3s that you acquired completely legally? You need something to play them too. I recommend Songbird.
Songbird is a bit like Firefox mashed up with iTunes. As well as managing your library and letting you make playlists and such, it also integrates a web browser. When you’re visiting any page with an MP3 – a music blog, for example – every linked MP3 shows up in a list at the bottom of the page for easy downloading. They then get automatically put into your library. Very useful, very well done. Completely open-source, and uses the same extensions infrastructure as Firefox.
So that’s music, how about video? There are two applications that I’ll recommend. The first is called VLC. It’s a media player that’ll play just about anything you throw at it. DivX, Xvid, MPG, support for pretty much everything is included – no mucking about with dodgy websites to get the codec you need. It’s not the most attractive application in the world, though, so those of you that aren’t keen, try might want to try out…
Media Player Classic – similar to VLC, but with a slightly nicer interface. Again, it’ll play most everything that you chuck at it, but I found VLC edges out in the reliability stakes. If you don’t like one, try the other.
As for content, it’s a little tougher to get good quality free video legally than it is for music, but the best out there, to be honest, is iPlayer. If you’ve not tried the BBC’s flash-based internet delivery system, then give it a shot. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. And in the UK it’s completely free.
Photos is next. I’m sure that following Dan’s talk about photography you’ve all got digital cameras spewing millions of pictures. You need to do two things – organize them and edit them. For organizational purposes, I’d suggest you check out Google’s Picasa. It lets you sort, tag, and organize all your millions of photos.
You can do basic editing tasks, like cropping and red-eye reduction, and you can make simple slideshows and collages from photos. Picasa makes it all very very easy. If you’re a bit more of a pro, and you need something a bit more hardcore, then take a look at GIMP.
GIMP is a fully open-sourced replacement for Photoshop. Note that I said replacement, not clone. Like Photoshop it’s ridiculously complex, but parts of the application work very differently, which will mean re-learning old habits if you’re a practiced Photoshop wizard.
If you’d like something in between – not as simplistic as just cropping and red-eye, but not as full-on as the GIMP, then I’d recommend Paint.net, which is a much much superior and easy-to-use version of Microsft Paint.
So, in terms of entertainment, music, video, and photos are covered. All that’s left is a way to talk to people – an instant messaging client.
The IM system that I’d recommend above all others is probably Skype. It lets you text-chat, voice-chat and video-chat to people across the world, and it’s got the best quality I’ve seen on such a service. I use it all the time, and when I was studying in America for a year with a girlfriend still in the UK, it probably saved our relationship.
But Skype is closed-source, and there are a lot of other communications networks out there too, so what you might want is something that ties in to everything else. Pidgin‘s for you. It supports MySpaceIM, MSN Messenger, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, Facebook Chat, Xfire and AIM, among others. Pretty much everything, basically.
That’s pretty much it. We’ve covered operating systems, web browsers, antivirus, email clients, office suites, music players and discovery services, video players, photos, and instant messaging. I think that’s most stuff that most people will need on a computer. And all of it is free.
Phones aren’t just for making calls, they’re also for having fun. Modern phones have a wealth of options available for keeping yourself entertained on the go. Buses, waiting rooms, and bored weekends at the in-laws’ house can all be enlivened with the help of a few handy applications.
Lets start with stuff you’ll know from your computer. YouTube has a great little mobile app for most Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones, the iPhone and the G1 that’ll have you Rickrolling your friends in no time. I can safely report that ‘Chocolate Rain’ is just as awesome in mobile form too.
There’s also iPlayer for certain Nokia smartphones, the iPhone, the Samsung Omnia, a couple of Sony Ericsson handsets and the HTC Touch HD. Most only allow streaming and unfortunately that’ll only work in Wi-Fi areas but owners of the Nokia N85 or N96 are able to download content to the handset via their PC for playback later on, even when they’re out of range of Wi-Fi.
If you use Sky+ you’ll be pleased to hear that there are applications available that’ll let you schedule your watching habits or set something to record via a mobile application for the iPhone. If you don’t have an iPhone, then you can still set stuff to record via text message.
The music fans among you might be aware of a website called Last.fm. It’s a personalized radio service which intelligently recommends you music based on what you listen to. Guess what – it has a mobile client. iPhone owners and G1 owners can listen to their radio stations via a 3G connection on the go by using the free Last.fm application.
Lastly, don’t forget the world of podcasts. Almost every handset that’s capable of MP3 playback has a podcast application available, and the world of podcasts has never been better. I’d recommend you start with the Tech Digest podcast, but most BBC radio shows are available in podcast form too.
Whilst a phone is never going to replace a computer in terms of functionality you want it to be able to cope with the majority of your favourite everyday applications, and the most obvious feature is communications. Apart from voice calls and messages there’s so much more you can do with a mobile.
If you amp the functionality up all the way you get the Inq phone from 3 – an astonishing concept, as it’s so integrated into all your networking that its actually scary. It automatically updates Facebook, twitter, MySpace and your address book depending on what people have done to their pages – and you get all of that for free.
Let start with a popular application and the buzzword of today- Twitter. You want to be able to access your account on the go, update and reply to people’a messages, but with so many clients it’s difficult to know where to start.
A great one for the Android platform is TwitDroid. It’s free to download and allow you to read messages, and reply to them as well as update your status, which not all clients allow. Twibble is a popular tool on the Nokia handsets and then you have Twitberry for BlackBerry and Twitterfon for the iPhone.
Windows Mobile users also get a look-in, as you can choose from a variety of apps, my personal favourite being Twoible for Windows Mobile. You get the picture, huh? All these operators want to make it as easy as possible for you to use their service, meaning you’ll stick with them!
Next we come to a more thorny issue, that of free calls on your phone – clearly something that the operators aren’t going to be enamoured with. There are some VOIP clients which work with mobiles but it can be hit or miss whether they’ll work or not. The three main competitors would be Skype, Fring and Truphone. These are all services that allow you to make calls via your phone’s internet connection, with varying levels of ease.
First we’ll look at the big daddy, Skype. Some handsets, such as 3 phones, come with integrated Skype functions whilst others have apps or let you install them. You can make free Skype to Skype calls, and will have to pay a small fee to make calls to landlines and mobiles- but you’ll save a lot when calling abroad. Not all phones support Skype, however, as the operators fear they’ll lose out on call fees. I see Skype as supporter to the phone rather than replacing it.
You can use Skype easily on all Windows Mobile phones or the iPhone, and Android handsets have a beta version available. We can hope that more phones will open up to it, though they do have an impressive line-up of compatible handsets with everything from Sony Ericsson to LG in the mix. They only run Skype lite though as non-smartphones can’t cope with the full Skype functionality.
Next into the fray we have Truphone which works on a very similar basis to Skype- but on a more comprehensive level. In fact it can be compared to Fring, which I’ll also address below. Truphone allows you to make calls via VoIP or GSM, as well as IM people and has integrated Skype so you can call your contacts using this service. It works on the G1, iPhone and BlackBerry as well as the iPod Touch (via wi-fi) and lets you make cheap calls. The company makes money by pushing adverts at you while you’re using the service.
Fring is another social media aggregator that lets you make calls and chat within all your favourite IM clients, and it also integrates low cost calling from your mobile. Which you choose really depends on how you like their interface and what platform you’re using them on, but there’s something for everyone, whether you’re Android or BlackBerry.
Getting where you want to go – or even just finding out where you are – can be tricky in an unfamiliar city. You could ask someone, but there’s every chance they’ll laugh in your face, spit in your shoes and mock you for being a scummy tourist. Fear not – you never need for that to happen to you again. Instead, you can let your mobile phone sort it all out.
There are a couple of homegrown options that might well be available on your handset already, especially if you’ve got a GPS-equipped BlackBerry or a fairly modern Nokia phone. Both of those companies have developed their own map software. But I don’t like them that much. Far better is Google’s offering – Google Maps. Google Maps works on most mobile phones – BlackBerry, Nokia, Windows Mobile, and PalmOS, and it comes pre-installed on the T-Mobile G1 and on iPhones.
First-up, location. Within a couple of seconds of starting the program up, a blue dot appears marking your location. It’s surrounded by a light blue circle which represents uncertainty. If your phone can get a GPS lock, that circle will be very small, but if it’s working out your location from nearby cell towers then it might not get your location exactly right.
Then you might want to find out what’s nearby. Go to ‘search’, and type something in. I’m hungry, so let’s find a sandwich shop. Type in ‘sandwich’, and you’ll get a list of all the sandwich shops in the area complete with phone numbers, addresses, website links and even user reviews.
There’s the option to get your phone to navigate you to the shop, but most of the time you’ll want to get somewhere further afield. Hit ‘get directions’, and you can choose from car, public transport or walking. At each point on the way, we can see Street View for the route, so you know exactly where you’re going. If you’re driving you can also add traffic information, or get a satellite view.
Lastly, what if one of your friends was eating at a different sandwich shop? You’d want to know, surely, so that you could meet up. Google’s got you covered here too, with a relatively new service called ‘Latitude’. Latitude keeps track of you, and then lets people – only people you specify – see where you are at any given time. You can choose how specific it is – and you can even lie if you like – but it can be quite handy for people who want to increase the odds that they’ll bump into friends.
Fitness and wellbeing
We all want to be fit and in shape but as we’re lazy we’re prone to procrastination and excuses, from “I can’t get to the gym” to “I thought that chocolate cake was low fat!” Well, now there are a wide variety of fitness applications that work on most handsets that’ll prevent you from getting away with that kind of denial.
Let’s start with Samsung’s fitness “Micoach” phone which gives you music tracks for different workouts, as well as letting you hook up your results to their website to monitor progress. It will even give you motivational phrases like “Speed up!” whilst you’re working out, though I think promising you chocolate might work better.
If that’s too much hassle, there are a variety of other phone apps you can try. As long as you have a compatible phone there a fitness tool for you – it’s not all limited to iPhone applications.
Let’s take a look at the Android phone – the T-Mobile G1. This platform has many, many options, and my favourites so far are “Calorie Counter” and “Buddy Trainer”. The former lets you record what you eat every day, update your weight and fitness goals, and even includes a barcode scanner so it can work out the calories of what you’ve eaten. The Buddy Trainer gives you support when you’re working out and has a variety of GPS maps to let you choose outdoor running trails.
BlackBerry handsets have some similar options, such as Sendo Calories which lets you calculate your daily calorie consumption with ease and Nokia’s phones feature the Sports Tracker app which gives you the time and distance of your workout and lets you upload your route and connect to other exercisers online. The iPhone has a zillion applications to choose from, from iFitness and Fitphone which both provide you with detailed exercises to target different muscles in the body.
Lastly, let’s talk about games. Which mobile OS has the best games? Well, ‘best’ is mostly in the eye of the beholder, but I can tell you straight off the bat which platform has the best choice – it’s the iPhone. The user-friendliness of the device, combined with its specs and the success of the app store, has meant that developers have flooded to the platform.
As a result, everything from SimCity to Quake and the wonderful and insane Katamari Damacy is available on the platform. It’s got great quality standards, too, unlike the vast majority of mobile phone games which are crappy clones of old titles that just feature the characters of the latest awful Dreamworks summer blockbuster.
But the iPhone doesn’t have the monopoly on good games. Android’s proving fertile, with some interesting strategy titles like Archipelago cropping up, alongside old favourites like Doom and Breakout. Windows Mobile isn’t bad either, though because it lacks a central app store, it can be hard to track down the games you want.
Symbian is represented by N-Gage which, although ahead of its time when it was released, is now aging poorly. There’s very few big titles, and those that exist are just uninspired continuations of existing games franchises like Need for Speed or FIFA. There’s little innovation.
Which leaves us with BlackBerry. RIM’s devices are built for email, not gaming, and they’re not very appealing to hackers. As a result, the BlackBerry games ecosystem is limited to basic puzzle games and arcade classics, but with the introduction of App world, a bunch of brain-training games have recently started appearing.
So, that’s a run-down of all the applications available on each device. All of them can be found by searching either the application store for the device – in the case of BlackBerry, the iPhone and the G1, or by searching Google in the case of Windows Mobile, Nokia and Sony Ericsson handsets.
The idea of wearing goggles to view TV, video games etc. isn’t new. But at the Gadget Show Live 2009 Vuzix showed a full range of affordable glasses, starting at just £149. The concept is simple. By transmitting a stereo image that appears right in front of your eyeballs, it’s possible to recreate the experience of watching a big screen from several feet away. But what are these space age glasses actually like? We tried three of the four latest models mainly on video content – for a review of the top of the range pair you can watch Duncan’s review here. Read on for the verdict.
Gocycle launches electric bike at Gadget Show Live 2009 for £795
The UK's first Blu-Ray recorder, a 3G Watch Phone and Power Assisted luggage are among the highlights of The Gadget Show Live 2009