Solving the World's problems with common sense and a flamethrower.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

New Shiny Toy - Early Impressions

I've been intending to do it for a while, but yesterday I finally bought myself a new laptop.

I marched into PC World in Oxford, credit card in hand, fully intending to purchase a Samsung Q35 - and ended up walking out with an Advent 8212.

Some may ask - why buy a much lesser-known brand laptop? Well, the spec was pretty irresistible - a considerably higher spec than the Samsung - yet the price was the same. Additionally, when I did a side-by-side comparison of the two machines, the display quality was actually higher than the Samsung, and I even get the same warranty.

So - I have the laptop, it's fully charged and I've had a day to play with it so far. These are my initial opinions on the box, and I'll post more once I've lived with it for a while.

One of the first things that attracted me to the Advent was the spec, which is as follows:

- Intel Core Duo T7100 @ 1.8GHz;
- 2048MB DDRII 667 RAM;
- 120GB HDD;
- Shared graphics (it says up to 128MB, but is actually taking 448MB for VRAM!)
- Integrated 1.3MP webcam;
- 12.1" Widescreen TFT @1280 x 800 pixels
- Vista Home Premium.

Compare that to the spec of the Samsung - T5200 @1.6GHz, 1GB RAM, 100GB HDD, 128MB graphics, no webcam - and consider that this was the same price - £599. So you can see there that with the Samsung, there's an immediate cost based upon the brand.

First Impressions
Once I got the laptop home, and left it to charge up for a while (probably the hardest part of the whole thing was resisting the temptation to play with it), I settled in for my first experience of Windows Vista.

The first thing I noticed was the keyboard. I'm a touch-typist, and often find that laptop keyboards are a little small for doing that comfortably. However, despite its diminutive size, the keyboard works well, with a positive reaction from the keys and a 'desktop' feel. If I'm being really picky, I'd complain that the shift keys are a little small - but I'm already adapting to that.

Vista itself is certainly pretty - it defaulted into a dark taskbar and desktop, which was great for me as I would have set it to that anyway. The default sidebar is useful and easy to configure - more on that later.

As for the eye-candy - well, I have to say that I love it. I could spend hours playing with te window animation when I press 'Win+Alt'. I know it's similar to the Expose feature in Mac OSX, but it's done well. The additional Aero feature of showing a teensy window - with animation - on the taskbar when you hover over it is also impressive!

One of the features I was delighted to find in Vista Home Premium was the Terminal Server Client. I use RDP a lot, connecting to other machines on the home network, and was expecting it to be absent as it was in XP Home. To have the client as standard on Home Premium has saved me a lot of hassle.

Firefox and AVG Free both installed with no problems or incidents, and Windows didn't baulk at having Firefox set as the default browser.

VMWare Player also installed with no issues, giving me a virtual Ubuntu Linux desktop if I need it. I may dual-boot in the future - as yet I'm undecided.

The Sidebar has already turned out to be a useful tool.

Once I'd removed the useless gadgets I didn't need - like a weather report, RSS reader and (for some reason) a picture slideshow, I was left with just a clock. I prefer analogue, so this is nicer for me than the standard digital clock on the taskbar. I then downloaded and installed a couple of other gadgets from the Microsoft Gallery, including an RDP shortcut and a CPU/RAM meter. Both were quick and easy to install, and just work.

The Sidebar does take up some screen estate, but I've intentionally got mine set up to always be available. Obviously that's my choice, if you change the properties you can use the full widescreen and just see the Sidebar on the Desktop.

Performance & Battery Life
After such a short time with the laptop, I can't give definitive answers yet - but my initial impressions are good.

I went into this with some concerns, as I've read all the stories about how resource-hungry Vista is and wasn't expecting miracles. And it's true that Vista takes a LOT of memory. Running with just RDP and Firefox open (5 tabs), memory usage is at 43% - that's 880MB! I think we can safely say that 2GB is necessary.

The fan isn't hugely quiet, but it only runs for a couple of seconds at a time unless under heavy load, and even if running constantly it's not overly intrusive.

As an experiment last night, I decided to do a lot more and run the machine down from fully-charged to zero as quickly as possible.

So....I opened Firefox and IE7, opened some pages including some Flash animations and Windows Update, connected to my server via RDP, started copying files from there to the laptop, and dug out my 'guilty pleasure' - the 'Hackers' DVD, popping that into the DVD-RW drive on the right side of the laptop.

Then I took out the power cable, and sat down to watch the movie!

With all of that running, CPU usage climbed to between 60% and 80%, as did RAM usage. Battery charge dropped fast - yet I was still able to see the plucky, innocent hackers beat the big, bad villians and Dade Murphy get the girl.

There were no hangs or stutters from Media Player either.

First Impressions
Overall, my first impressions of this laptop have been overwhelmingly positive. I've tried it doing more than I would normally do with a lappy, and so far it's met every one of my challenges without breaking a sweat.

I'm delighted with my purchase, and would recommend this Advent model to anyone looking for a decent-spec subnotebook under £700.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Experience of a Lifetime, or Wot I Done on My Holidays


Well, we're back, having just had the most amazing holiday I've ever experienced.

We flew to Tanzania and spent 5 days on safari, followed by three days in the old Stone Town of Zanzibar and finishing with 6 days on the paradise of Pongwe Beach Resort in Zanzibar.

Well, that's the basic description - but the reality was just incredible....

So on 18 August we grabbed our backpacks and lugged them to Heathrow, flying to Dar Es Salaam by way of a stop in Doha in Qatar, and after 26 hours finally pitched up at our hotel in Arusha. Arusha isn't the nicest of towns, and I have to say it was a little unnerving to find our hotel protected by an armed guard!

A Shaky Start

We were awoken early on the Monday morning by the building shaking. I'm not joking - a stressed-concrete building shaking like an alcoholic with the DT's. It turns out that we were 85km from the epicentre of an earthquake registering 5.2 on the Richter Scale - an interesting alarm call, and one I've no desire to repeat! The earthquake even made the news.

Oh, and it was no warmer than the UK, and it was raining. Hard. Not the most auspicious start to our trip!

After an 'interesting' breakfast - scrambled eggs, tinned mushrooms (with mixed veg), baked beans with garlic and something that was almost, but not quite, a frankfurter - we were picked up by our safari guide Hussein, introduced to our camp cook Ema and we were off, with a 2-hour drive through the rain to Tarangire National Park.

After setting up our little tent in the campsite, off we went into the park, the weather clearing above us - and within minutes we'd come face to face with our first animal - a giraffe, about 20 feet from us and totally unconcerned by the excited humans in the white Land Cruiser snapping away at him!

From that point on, the wonder started. We were lucky enough to come across a family of elephant with a calf, and we sat there for easily 20 minutes, watching the calf suckling from its mother as the herd lazily grazed on the acacia bushes.

Seeing this - sat no more than 15 feet from a herd of grazing elephant, barely daring to breathe loudly - I finally realised how incredible this was going to be. Part of me had expected the safari to be almost like a trip to a safari park, with us in a vehicle looking at animals. But the reality is totally different - I felt like I was in their space. Those elephants knew we were there, and we were watching them because they chose to allow us to do so. These weren't transplanted animals - we were the ones transplanted to their place.

After our first overnight stay, when I learned just how unnerving it is to go to the toilet at night on a campsite in an African national park, we were off again, heading up to the Serengeti National Park.

It's at this point I should mention the roads.

The Road Less Travelled

The trip to Serengeti is about 250km - 155 miles. Not that far, really, and about the same distance as I travel to visit my parents, a journey which takes about3-4 hours.

In Tanzania, it took almost 7.

There is a road between Tarangire and Serengeti - note that, one road - and it travels through the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area then winds on into the Serengeti National Park. The road through Ngorongoro is managed by the Conservation Area, and the part through Serengeti by the National Park. There's no central funding.

None of it is paved.

This means that the Ngorongoro stretch is a winding dirt track climbing into the clouds which permanently surround the Ngorongoro Crater Rim - where it becomes a mud track - then down onto the Serengeti plain, where the heat has created a lunar landscape and a track of rocks and dust. We slipped and slithered our way up, picking our way around broken-down and crashed lorries (and trying not to think of the 600m drop the other side of us), and then we were heading on, in dust so thick you sometimes couldn't see ahead of you, jolting and bumping and rarely exceeding 50km/h, using whichever side of the road was smoothest at the time.

Gerry and I silently blessed the bandanas we'd bought as last-minute purchases as we juddered along, hair and clothes thick with dust, mouths and noses covered like Mexican bandits, nothing in sight for mile after mile other than twisted acacia and the odd Maasai farmer.

Finally, after a late meal stop, we were in Serengeti National Park, we saw our first lion and every bone-jarring second of our drive was worthwhile.


I think that everyone has their own mental image of what Africa 'is' - it might be the endless sands of the Sahara, or tribal violence in the Congo, or even the soukh in Tangiers. But for me, when we pitched our camp in the Serengeti National Park, I was in the Africa I'd always imagined. Childhood images, created and shaped by wildlife documentaries, were made absolutely real.

From the door of our tent, we could gaze out over a vast panorama of dried grasses, twisted and flat-top acacia, puncuated by giraffes ambling past in the distance with their long, swinging gait and small herds of Thompson Gazelles. Mongooses and Bush Hyrax scuttled around near the camp kitchen searching for small insects and scraps of food. We ate our evening meal in the Serengeti sunset, and went to sleep early lulled by the night sounds - the incessant chirp of cicadas and the occasional lonely whooping call of a spotted hyena wandering past the campsite.

Facilities in the campsite were primitive indeed. The toilets were simple squats or, amazingly, a concrete dais with a toilet seat over the top, all above deep pits. The only water supply came from an almost-empty plastic tank. There was a bucket shower, and Gerry gratefully used it, only to find that it belonged to an enterprising local who wanted to charge $5 for the privilege! A quick word with our guide, and he was gone the next morning - sadly along with his shower, which meant that we had to wash in about an inch of water in a bucket.

Despite the presence of toilets, though, we were strongly advised by our guide not to use them after dark, as it was impossible to know what would be coming through the camp by night. This stern warning was reinforced the first morning, when we found out that two lions had come through at 5am, getting a drink from the water supply! We'd slept through it, but our cook Ema had been up and about in the camp kitchen with his colleagues, and they'd had a scary few moments.

Serengeti was our first real exposure to the awesome power of the African sun. On our arrival, I took my shirt off for just 15 minutes while pitching the tent, and ended up with sunburned shoulders!

But it was the wildlife in Serengeti National Park that really blew us away. While it could be quite a time between sightings, simply because of the sheer size of the Park, when Hussein found something it was normally something special.

A quick Stat-Spot: Serengeti National Park covers an area of almost 15,000sq km. That's 6,000sq miles. For perspective, that's an area the size of Yorkshire.

An amazing highlight of the first full day was seeing a lioness plodding along the side of the road, closely followed by her cub, who couldn't have been more than a month or two old. We were so close we could almost have touched him - though that would not have been sensible - and we watched her pad off to wherever she was going, with him jogging along behind trying to keep up.

We saw leopards, lazily sprawled in the branches of their favourite trees watching the world pass by. Ostrich couples striding along (and in one instance mating - the ridiculous dance the male ostrich does before 'performing' made me wish I'd had a video camera!). A Cheetah with her cubs, hiding in the long grass of the plain. A trio of older lion cubs, sunning themselves on a kopje while they waited for their mother to return with food. Ox-Pecker birds, with their brightly-coloured beaks, feeding on the ticks in the skin of Giraffes. Herds of Hippos wallowing contentedly in their pool while basking crocodiles looked on.

The sights seemed never-ending, and every time we thought we'd seen the most unexpected or beautiful image, something else would come along to surprise us. Hussein was fantastic, glued to his radio as we drove along, listening to what other guides were finding as he looked out for memorable sights for us.

A Memorable Finale to Serengeti

Our second (and final) full day in Serengeti produced two of the most amazing, rare and memorable sights of the whole safari.

About 30 minutes into our morning game drive, there was a sudden burst of excited Swahili over the radio, and Hussein immediately turned the vehicle around and sprinted back the way we'd come. Believe me, it was as fast as he could go - and 50km/h on a dirt track is plenty fast enough! All he'd say was it was 'something special' - and the last time he'd said that was for the lioness and her cub, so we knew we were in for a treat.

We certainly were. There, just a few feet from the road, was a pride of over 20 lions with a fresh kill - a buffalo that we'd photographed just the night before. To see a pride with a kill is rare, and if it is seen it's normally at quite a distance. Here, though, we were so close to the action that we could hear the purrs of the lions as they ate, hear as well as see their teeth tearing the flesh. We were awe-struck, and we watched in wonder, ignoring the traffic jam of safari vehicles as more and more viewers rushed to the scene. The lions were totally unfazed by our presence, feasting on their prize and, as they ate their fill, strolling off to bask in the grass.

It was a jaw-dropping piece of wildlife reality, and something that I'll remember for a very long time.

Then, just to round off our time in Serengeti, as we drove along Hussein caught a glimpse of something moving in long-grass off to our left, some distance away. We stopped, grabbing the binoculars - and we were lucky enough to see a Serval - a small African wildcat, rare and difficult to see. I grabbed a photo, but even with a 300mm lens on the camera, it was hard to see.

Finally, we broke camp and headed off, again looking like Mexican bandits, back into the dust for the 5-hour drive to our next stop - the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.

The Crater and the Buffalo

After juddering and bouncing our way along the dirt road, we finally reached our campsite on the Ngorongoro Crater Rim in the early evening, and wrenched our battered and dust-caked bodies out of the Land Cruiser in a place so different from the Serengeti we might have been in another country.

We were on a hillside in crystal-clear air, about 2600m (1.6 miles) above sea level and with a view that took in almost all of the Crater below. Though the toilets were just as primitive as the Serengeti campsite, this time they had electricity - which meant hot showers, and we gratefully took the chance to get properly clean for the first time in three days.

While we waited for dinner, we walked down the hill a couple of hundred metres to the bottom of the campsite to look at the view - and came face to face with a buffalo in the camp!

I immediately started taking photos of him, moving closer - and when I got within about 3m of him he raised his huge horned head, and stared straight at me, giving me the most amazing photo opportunity of this huge member of the 'Big 5'.

It was only as we walked away that a somewhat nervous South African guy approached me and asked what I'd been doing - then explained that I'd been 10 feet from an animal considered to be one of the most dangerous in Africa!

As the evening went on, it got colder and colder - at the altitude of the Rim, it's frequently below zero - so we tucked ourselves up in our sleeping bags and settled down for the night...only to be woken not long after midnight by an odd sound....which when we checked turned out to be zebra, grazing right outside the tent. They were so close that their every sound was audible, a cacophony of munching right by our ears.

The Big 5

With the sunrise, it was time to climb back into the vehicle and descend the precarious access road into the Crater itself.

With its steep sides, the Ngorongoro Crater keeps most of its wildlife in, meaning that there's plenty to see packed into just 264 sq km (101 sq miles).

Our first glimpse of something new came quickly, with a Spotted Hyena - the first time we'd seen one reasonably close - and then, as we rounded a corner in a wooded area, we came face to face with a huge old bull elephant. The safe environment of the Ngorongoro Crater means that the elephants tend to live longer and this old boy showed every year, with the longest tusks I've ever seen except on pictures of prehistoric mammoths!

Immediately after him, though, came the crowning moment of the trip to the Crater - if not the whole safari - as another call came through on the radio and off we dashed again.

This time, it was something not just special but incredible. Black Rhino - and not just one, but two together! There are just 23 Black Rhino in the entire Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and only 11 in the whole of the Serengeti, so to see one at all is a rare privilege.

They were too far away for a decent photo, even with a 300mm lens, but they were easy to see with our binoculars, and we were grinning like kids at Christmas as we realised that we'd seen the complete Big 5 - Lion, Leopard, Cape Buffalo, Elephant and now Black Rhino.

We drove on, with the weak morning sun meaning we had a rare chance to see hippos out of the water. For 3-tonne leviathans, they have an odd grace when moving, and we watched one with her calf as they grazed before returning to the cool of their waterhole.

Throughout the Crater were herds of Wildebeest, with Zebra intermingling with them, moving in seemingly never-ending single file from one apparently featureless point to another. We would stop to allow some to cross our path, then drive round a corner and find the head of the herd crossing again - animal after animal in single file, a column stretching for thousands of metres. While we didn't see the actual Wildebeest Migration - at this time of year the Wildebeest are well north in the Maasai Mara - just seeing these herds moving around gave us a small idea of how the full Migration must look when it's millions of animals moving as one.

All too soon it was time to move, and we wound up the even more precarious Ascent Road with me gripping the armrests, grey-faced with fear, and headed away from the Crater to our last safari stop - Lake Manyara National Park.

Manyara was, in some ways, a bit of an anti-climax - though we did get to see some fantastic sights, culminating in a troop of baboons relaxing together, grooming and playing in the gathering dusk. By the time we got there, we were tired, dirty and in all honesty looking forward to spending a night in a proper bed.

Manyara done, we took the drive back to Arusha, and collapsed into a proper bed for the first time in what felt like years.

After that - well, what can I say? A short hop to Zanzibar, and there we were in a tropical paradise. We spent our first three days in Stone Town, the oldest part of Zanzibar Town, and relished a soft mattress, before being picked up and chauffeured to our final destination for the remaining week - the Pongwe Beach Resort.

Paradise Found

Pongwe was, quite simply, the absolute image of a desert island, beachside resort.

With just 16 2-person bungalows, it takes a maximum of 32 guests, who are cared for by an incredible 67 staff! From the moment we arrived we were in the lap of luxury, with our every need catered to by smiling waiters.

Our bungalow was right on the beach, looking out over white sand and the vivid blue of the Indian Ocean. We could (and did) walk straight out of the front door and, holding hands, run straight into the warmest outdoor water I've ever swum in.

We were lulled to sleep each night by the gentle sound of the waves against the shore - and, actually, brutally woken by the screeching yells of bush-babies in the early parts of the night!

All too soon, reality beckoned and we were back in a taxi...then a plane...then another plane...then another plane...then a bus...then another taxi...and home, 26 hours after leaving Paradise.

As I finish writing this now, 2 weeks after our return, it seems magically distant, like a place I read about rather than experienced. Thankfully we have the photographs (see them all here and here), and each one evokes the memories - the sights, feelings and smells of Africa brought back to life through an image on a laptop screen.

Oh well - now it's back to the 'Lonely Planet' guides, so we can plan the next holiday of a lifetime - in 2009!