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PC Plus

Building the ultimate media PC

by Dean on June 27, 2010

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ASrock S330 case Building the ultimate media PC

PCs and the living room have had an awkward relationship over the years because of one thing: noise.

But no more: new advancements in technology have produced quiet machines that still have the grunt needed to handle HD video streaming and more…

In this technology feature for PC Plus (republished on TechRadar.com), the brief was to pull together a list of cutting-edge components for the ‘ultimate TV PC’, along with the software that would bring it to life.

The result? A compact, whisper-quiet mini PC based around an Zotac Ion N330 Ion ITX-AB motherboard and a Compucase Mini ITX (8K01) casing.

Read the full article here: Build yourself the ultimate media PC.

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Review – PagePlus X4

by Dean on October 4, 2009

pageplus review Review   PagePlus X4

PagePlus X4 offers professional-looking DTP results without a hefty price tag. This is an excerpt from a review written for PC Plus magazine (issue 288).

PagePlus knows its place. Along with Microsoft Office Publisher, it shies away from targeting pro designers to pitch its wares at small business users and enthusiastic amateurs.

InDesign might be powerful, but it can also be notoriously unfriendly to new users. There’s not so much a learning curve involved but a sheer learning cliff face. Made of ice. If all you want to do is knock up a parish newsletter or car boot sale flyer, spending £684 on InDesign CS4 is overkill.

In comparison, PagePlus X4 ducks in well under the £100 mark. That makes it over £600 cheaper than InDesign, yet it never truly feels like a bargain-bucket DTP package.

Much of the same page layout functionality is present, enabling you to design brochures, business cards, flyers, newsletters, posters and even web pages. What makes PagePlus X4 stand out is its friendly usability. The learning curve here is a more of a gentle hill, well-signposted and with buses that run every half-hour.

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Apple vs. Google: It’s war!

by Dean on September 20, 2009

ammo Apple vs. Google: Its war!

Written for PC Plus magazine (issue 287), this article looks at how Apple is battling Microsoft on one side and the search colossus Google on the other. Here’s an excerpt:

Apple’s rejection of Google Voice for the iPhone (and subsequent threat of investigation by the FCC) has been cited as the tipping point for Eric Schmidt’s departure.

But rather than being an anti-Google move, Apple’s reason for banning Google Voice has more to do with preserving its core ‘walled garden’ business strategy.

Apple claims that the Google Voice application “replaces Apple’s Visual Voicemail by routing calls through a separate Google Voice telephone number that stores any voicemail, preventing voicemail from being stored on the iPhone, I.e. disabling Apple’s Visual Voicemail.”

You’re just not allowed to mess with the iPhone. Apple is fiercely protective of its eco-system and it’s built a $8 billion business based on retaining total control of it.

If you buy into the Apple way of doing things, you can only run the software that they approve of. Focusing on innovative design and usability, one Apple product acts as a lead-in for another.

Buy an iPod and you’ll try iTunes. You’ll download AAC-encoded music, QuickTime-formatted video and OS X-powered mini-apps. Before you know it, you’re an Apple junkie.

The more you invest into the Apple eco-system, the more difficult it becomes to abandon it in favour of something else.

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The end of the road for Ofcom?

by Dean on August 30, 2009

dead end The end of the road for Ofcom?

A news article for PC Plus magazine that reflects on Conservative leader David Cameron’s criticism of the communications regulator Ofcom. Here’s an excerpt:

[David] Cameron could be aiming his reformist quango-gun in the wrong direction. Ofcom is primarily funded by payments from broadcasting licensees and communications providers. Government grants are only provided for specific projects. The regulator even pumped £223 million back into the Treasury last year.

And when it comes to looking after the interests of the taxpayer, Ofcom don’t appear to have been putting a foot wrong. It has long sought to curb exorbitant mobile roaming charges, while its commitment to Local Loop Unbundling (LLU) has improved competition in the UK broadband market.

Further help in that area has come from Ofcom’s newest investigation into real-world broadband speeds, which damned many broadband providers for failing to deliver the speeds they advertise.

Over 60 million separate service performance tests were carried out in over 1,600 homes between November 2008 and April 2009. The results showed that the average broadband speed in the UK was a sluggish 4.1Mbps and that only nine per cent of sampled customers with 8Mbps packages actually received speeds of over 6Mbps.

The full article appears in issue 286 of PC Plus magazine.

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Has the MySpace bubble burst?

by Dean on July 16, 2009

1193483 55169891 Has the MySpace bubble burst?

Another article for PC Plus magazine (issue 285) that asks whether the age of MySpace is over and if Facebook has peaked? Is the social networking bubble about to burst? Or maybe the party has just moved on to Twitter…

When Rupert Murdoch handed over $580 million of News Corp’s money to buy MySpace in 2005, it seemed like a visionary deal. MySpace was an Internet success story, bravely mashing together blogging, messaging, photos, audio and video into hackable pop culture home pages.

Wired called MySpace a “nonstop global block party of music, video, and hookups”. And everybody was invited…

Three-quarters of the UK’s online population are believed to have a social network profile. Most spend a significant chunk of their time online and check their profiles (for new status updates, messages, trends, games, pointless quizzes or shared multimedia files) at least once a day.

While Facebook claims 200 million users worldwide, MySpace still boasts 130 million. That’s still huge by anyone’s standards. In some respects, the challenge for MySpace isn’t so much gaining new users, but retaining their attention.

The full article appears in PC Plus, issue 285.

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Review – Mr Site Takeaway Website Pro

by Dean on July 15, 2009

mrsite1 Review   Mr Site Takeaway Website Pro

Another review for PC Plus magazine, issue 283. Mr Site Takeaway Website Pro offers you everything you need to get a website up-and-running. In a box.

You could argue that Mr Site Takeaway Website Pro has no place in the pages of PC Plus. At first glance, this one-size-fits-all approach to website construction is far too simplistic and restrictive. For anybody with an ounce of web knowledge, it’s a frustrating experience – like trying to paint a fine watercolour with a stiff bristle B&Q broom.

But what do you expect? Mr Site Takeaway Website Pro boils down the mechanics of a new website build into six simple steps. Log onto www.mrsite.com/create and the software will help you register a domain and get your first pages online within a few minutes. No technical knowledge required. No jargon. No fuss. No imagination. No flexibility… There isn’t even anything useful in the box except a manual (so don’t pay an extra £3.50 for a boxed copy). The whole process takes place online.

Of course, this almost effortless simplicity is exactly what some people want. There’s a memorable episode of The Simpsons where Homer runs for Sanitation Commissioner with the slogan: “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” This outsourcing is the essence of what makes the Mr Site software and any ‘in a box’-themed product so attractive. Not only are they convenient, but you don’t have to put much effort in to make them work, and the end results are usually pretty decent.

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Review – Fujitsu PalmSecure Login Kit

by Dean on July 14, 2009

palmsecure Review   Fujitsu PalmSecure Login Kit

My review of Fujitsu’s PalmSecure Login Kit appears in PC Plus, issue 283. The PalmSecure Login Kit, as its name might suggest, uses the palm of your hand as a next-generation password-replacement system. Here’s an excerpt of the review:

Biometric technologies waiting in the wings include DNA matching, ear shape analysis, even body odour recognition. It seems that our bodily smell consists of a unique blend of chemicals known as volatiles. These chemicals can be extracted and analysed by ‘electronic nose’ biometric systems and subsequently converted into data strings for pattern matching. “That’ll be £10.99, sir. Could you excrete some scent towards the scanner please…”

A much more viable alternative to fingerprint recognition is the vein pattern recognition technology used in Fujitsu’s PalmSecure USB mouse. The technology works by identifying the vein patterns in your palm. These vein patterns are unique to each person and the structure doesn’t change as the body ages.

For this authentication technology to work, an image of the vein needs to be captured using near-infrared light emitted by a scanner. Deoxidized hemoglobin in the blood flowing through the hand absorbs this radiation, causing the veins beneath the skin to appear as a distinct black pattern. This pattern is then simplified, encrypted and stored as a master template.

There are several advantages to vein pattern recognition. It’s quick to authenticate, clean and contactless, plus it’s difficult to cheat the system as it relies on analysing a subcutaneous pattern. In fact, Fujitsu says that the technology is close to foolproof — it apparently works to a false acceptance rate of less than 0.00007%.

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kis2010 eng Review   Kaspersky Internet Security 2010

A slice of my review of Kaspersky Lab’s Internet Security 2010 software, written for PC Plus magazine. The full review appears in issue 285.

Like a EA Sports videogame franchise, Kaspersky Lab has rolled out new 2010 editions of its flagship Internet Security suite and standalone Anti Virus package. It’s a chance for Kaspersky Lab to point point out that it detects over 17,000 new and possible threats to your computer every day; an opportunity to make you think twice about whether your current security measures are really coping with the 2.4 million malware threats currently listed in the Kaspersky Lab database.

Peace of mind is a yearly subscription away.

Of course, it’s questionable whether this 2010 version is really any better at combating Internet evil than its predecessor. Isn’t it just an incremental update? An annual spit-and-polish with some new, bolt-on extras? Well, yes. And no. You could argue that, as the threats to our PCs evolve, so the technology to spot and eliminate them also needs to change.

There are always new ways of approaching the problem – updated virus definitions, a bulked up malware database, trusted application management and new crowd sourced early-warning systems.

Protecting a typical PC against Internet threats is much like a game of Desktop Tower Defence. Using only Pellet Guns and Squirt Towers will still allow a few Creeps to get through. You also need Dart, Swarm and Frost Towers in your arsenal to handle every situation. Because those Creeps will keep on coming.

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Heterogeneous Computing and you

by Dean on February 12, 2009

gpgpu ray tracing Heterogeneous Computing and you

General-Purpose computation on GPUs (aka GPGPU) is big news in the scientific research market. This article for PC Plus magazine looks at whether the average Nvidia or AMD GPU can give your PC a significant speed boost.

GPUs are ideal number-crunchers – they’re designed to work with ’streams’ of data, applying pre-programmed operations to each part. GPUs are at their best working with large datasets that require the same computation.

Calgary-based company OpenGeoSolutions uses Nvidia’s Tesla hardware to improve its seismic modelling via a technique called ‘Spectral Decomposition’. The process involves analysing low-level electromagnetic frequencies (caused by variances in rock mass) to build a stratigraphic view of the earth’s geology.

On a typical CPU-based cluster, building sub-surface images took anywhere from 2 hours to several days.

With a Tesla system, OpenGeoSolutions reported a performance increase that was “totally unprecedented”.

That’s all great, you might say. But I’m unlikely to be solving shallow water equations or prospecting for oil beneath the Alaskan ice. What sort of impact does this have on a desktop PC? Beyond the obvious gaming applications, what’s in it for me?

Right now, not much. If you’ve got an average graphics card like an Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT, your GPU (which features 64 separate stream processing cores) can already handle real-time physics effects. Nvidia ported Ageia’s PhysX code libraries to its 8-Series GPUs after acquiring the company back in February 2008.

More recently, we’ve seen the potential for faster media encoding with the release of Badaboom. Ripping a DVD or converting a video file would typically monopolise a CPU-only system. Built with Nvidia’s CUDA language, Badaboom allocates this data-intensive workload to an Nvidia GPU, so the CPU can still be used for day-to-day tasks.

The full text of this article appears in PC Plus magazine, issue 279. Or you can read it online here: Why your next CPU could be a GPU.

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Can Mac OS X & Linux upstage Windows 7?

by Dean on November 17, 2008

windows 7 Can Mac OS X & Linux upstage Windows 7?

As Microsoft galvanises support for Windows 7 (and brushes Windows Vista under the corporate rug), it’s worth remembering that Windows isn’t the only game in town.

At least not if the Apple and Linux camps have anything to say about it. Mac OS X 10.6, aka ‘Snow Leopard’ is currently simmering in the Cupertino oven.

Meanwhile, the Ubuntu faithful are looking forward to the next release, Jaunty Jackalope.

The next great OS battle

… The stakes are high for all concerned. Microsoft needs to restore consumer confidence with Windows 7; Apple needs to refine an OS that now spans its desktops, laptops and mobile phones; while Linux is starting to gain some traction (and a little mainstream love) thanks to the current netbook craze.

While Apple and Microsoft will trade high-profile punches, 2009 could well be a breakthrough year for Linux. Of course, we say that every year…

[The full text of this news article appeared in PC Plus magazine, issue 277]

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