Wednesday, 31 December 2008

LuckyVoice review: online karaoke, sing privately at home






If you love singing but prefer to strut your stuff only in the privacy of your own home, or even at a live private karaoke party e.g. for New Year’s Eve tonight, you can now get online karaoke over the internet from LuckyVoice, a chain of private karaoke bars started by LastMinute.com founder Martha Lane Fox. Over 1000 songs are free.

I was involved in the private beta of LuckyVoice's online offering, which has been running since summer 2008. LV's new service went into public beta in October 2008, and now anyone can register for an account.

I ran a "KaraokeCamp" session at BarCampLondon5 on Sunday 28 September 2008, and people had such fun that, as there was no session in the same room after my slot, we just carried on until we were kicked out of the room because BarCamp was finishing up!

(For geeks: for their online service, LV are converting karaoke songs from CD+G to XML format. I think this will make the music a lot more portable and maybe there’s scope for LV to make more money licensing the reformatted files to others?)

Requirements – what do you need?

All you need, apart from signing up for an account with LuckyVoice, is:

  • a computer with broadband internet connection and
  • a Web browser that handles Flash i.e. most modern browsers like Internet Explorer.

It even works on my Asus Eee (Linux) on Firefox. And of course it works on PCs and Macs.

The lyrics will show on your computer screen, and the backing instrumentals play out of your computer's speakers.

If you want your singing amplified to compete with the backing music, you'll also need a stereo system amplifier or stand-alone powered speakers (e.g. iPod speakers), as long as it has the appropriate inputs (e.g. Aux in) and you use the right connecting cables, plus of course a microphone that plugs into your stereo or speakers.

To mix the singing in with the backing track so that they come out of the same speakers (e.g. your stereo system), you'll also need a mixer – and LuckyVoice sell a mixer and microphone pack, which I'll come to later.

You could alternatively, if you have the right cables and adaptors, connect the audio and even video out from your computer to your TV. But you’d still need a mixer if you want to mix in the vocals from the mic.

Pricing – how much will it cost?

About 1000 songs are available for free, with another 6000 "premium" songs you have to pay to access.

LV say the free songs, which are those most commonly chosen in LV's live bars, will always be free - but at some point "ad breaks" will be introduced every 5 songs or so. (They may however have changed how they decide which songs are free - put it this way, hardly any ABBA songs are on the list of free songs, but don't tell me "Dancing Queen" isn't one of the most popular songs in their live bars!)

“Premium” songs, shown with a locked padlock symbol against the song title, were available free for a limited time to beta testers. I don't know if they'd also be free to all new members as a taster for a limited period after first joining – I doubt it, though from a diginomics "sampling" point of view I think that would be sensible.

£3.99, which must be paid through a PayPal account for now (includes credit or debit card payment), gives you 24 hours of access to all the premium songs - with the symbol changing to an unlocked padlock appropriately.

£7.99 buys you access to all songs for 30 days. I wondered if they might consider an annual subscription model too, but it's early days yet.

You could buy a voucher for a premium sing as a gift for a friend or relative, for instance.

You can also buy a "party pack" (see below) of microphone, mixer and introductory voucher for 1 month’s access to premium songs, selling at about £35 per pack (with they say the ability to buy an optional extra mic for a higher price, but I can't see it on the "buy" page).

How does it work?

First of course you have to register with LuckyVoice. (From a marketing viewpoint I think it would be great if LV made their own playlists public and let people play say 30 seconds of each song direct from their website but they don't do that so you have to register, free, to try it out.)

Playlists

Once you’ve registered and logged in, you can build a playlist of songs by searching for a song (by title or artist) and adding it to your playlist, which you can later edit. You can have more than one playlist.

On the Playlist Builder page (or when editing an existing playlist) you search for a song by entering words from the song title or artist name, to get a list of matching results.

Note on unusual searching: it matches part of a word not just whole words, e.g. “ab” finds ABBA songs as well as songs with “absolute” or “about” in the title – but only if the search term is at the start of the word not the middle of a word. So “ga” will find “Garth Brooks” and “Devil Gate Drive” but not songs with “again”.

You can preview a song from the results list before adding it (except for premium songs, which you can add to a playlist, but not preview or play until you’ve paid for them). To preview a song, click its name - there's a mini player on the right which shows the lyrics as the backing music plays - and add a song to the bottom of the playlist by clicking its + button.

Tip: for a quick solo sing or practice, it's easiest to use the mini player - the text is small but OK if you're right in front of the computer screen.

You can reorder songs in the playlist by dragging them up or down, but - first bugbear - it's too tricky to do that with long playlists because the webpage doesn't scroll up with the mouse - this I feel should be fixed as a priority, e.g. a way to move a song up or down the list with the keyboard.

I kept wanting to drag songs from the search results list to the playlist too, as you can drag songs up and down the list, but you can’t do that – use the +.

It’s not obvious but you need to click on a playlist title to name it.

There's a box at the bottom to request a song if you can't find it on their online list (which is not as extensive as what's available in their live bars). However there's not guarantee they'll make it available - only if it's requested by enough people.

Friends

You also have access to all your friends' playlists to copy across to your own playlist (which means that, yes, they can see yours too, "I'm Too Sexy" & all!).

Who are your “friends”? LuckyVoice is automatically your friend (as well as whoever invited you to sign up, and whoever you send an invite to).

LV have built up a few standard playlists to help get you going e.g. “warmup” songs, the inevitable Christmas songs, songs for “non-singers” to shout out, “diva” songs, crooners’ numbers, 80’s songs etc. (I rather like the “Bye bye Sarah Palin” selection including “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, “Handbags and Gladrags” and “Something Stupid”!!)

You can view a friend’s entire playlist and then add it to the bottom or top of your currently being edited playlist, or even replace all the songs in the current playlist with the songs from the imported playlist. Or you can just add individual songs from a friend’s playlist, though I found that was sometimes erratic in operation.

The “Change” button lets you change the name of the person whose playlists you want to view, by the way, and again confusingly “pick a friend to browse their playlists” includes your name as well as your friends’, well I guess you’re a friend of yourself I suppose…! Similarly to change the playlist for the currently-shown person, it’s the “Change” button. Not intuitive, to me, but maybe it is to others...

Singing

You can play a playlist fullscreen, in sequence, anytime: i.e. the lyrics will scroll up the screen and the backing music will play.

When you're ready for the big sing, click “start singing now” to open a new separate Karaoke Player window and F11 from there to view it full screen. The lyrics are displayed, as you'd expect, but also there's a countdown to when you start singing (if anyone wonders what the numbers coming up are for).

In the full Player window, while the lyrics of the currently playing song are obviously given the lion's share of screen real estate, you can call up the current playlist or other playlists (including friends' – though it doesn’t seem to show all your friends’ lists, just LV’s) and even do a live search for another song to add to the end of the current playlist.

It's not easy enough though to skip straight to a particular song, e.g. if someone's missing when it's their turn to sing and you want to bump up another song from the end of the playlist; and once a song is "gone" (sung or skipped) you can't get it back without re-adding it to the playlist via a live search. There is no “Move to the previous song” control. Pity you can’t just move a song to the back of the list.

Generally, reordering songs on the fly in the full Player is very limited and difficult to do (you can just about go to the start of the current song or skip to the start of the very next song in the list, but that's it; you can't even repeat a previous song!).

In a party situation (see below), it should be easier to change things. I've made this point to LV and they seem sympathetic to it.

Karaoke parties

You can run a "Party". The idea is that you set up a Party page (with details of when/where), invite friends, and then everyone invited can add songs to the party playlist. There’s even a “chat” tab (more bulletin board than live chat, really) and a tab for uploading photos from the party.

You can add an entire personal playlist to a party playlist, or just individual songs. So (tip here) you could build up a permanent list of your fave songs, then add songs from them to the playlist for any party you get invited to. But in my view it takes too many clicks to do that.

At a party, as long as one person has access to premium songs for the duration of the party and the party playlist has been built up under their login, then everyone can sing premium songs at the party.

If you invite people to a party, in the beta they automatically became "friends" of each other on LV. I'm not sure I like that, or profile info being open to all. It’s not easy to see who’s accepted an invite, or how to invite existing friends (they don’t make itclear enough that the email they can send for you is only for people who aren’t existing friends on LV; and you can’t write a custom email invitation message for existing friends).

Tip: as mentioned above, I've found the main player's playlist is too inflexible to allow for changes in singers, songs, etc. What worked best at BarCamp, as I suspected, was to start with a very short playlist of just a few songs to get things going, then have people request a song "live" at the party, find the song via a search on the main player page while someone’s singing, and add it to the end of the current playlist. Much like in a real karaoke bar, in fact.

But note that you'll need someone to be "on duty" at the computer to receive song requests and do searches, or maybe people can take turns to do that. As mentioned, once a song is played or skipped in the main karaoke player it's gone from the playlist forever, so if someone's not there when "their" song comes up, and you skip the song, you can't get it back except by searching and re-adding it anyway. (How about letting people at the party IM song requests or even send them via Twitter?? More realistically, via SMS text message to a special phone number set up for the party, with LV getting a small cut of course?)

For more spontaneity and flexibility there ought to be an easy way to "pin" the playlist i.e. keep it up on the karaoke player screen permanently, and to pin the search list, and also to quickly unpin either or both. At the moment you have to click to get them up, and they vanish after a while.

What about the hardware?

Many would say you can't possibly have a proper karaoke experience unless you have a mic to wave and toss from hand to hand.

With LuckyVoice, plugging a microphone into the mic socket of the same computer just won't work. Either you have to sing unamplified, or you need to rig up some extra kit i.e. plug your mic into another computer, or your stereo system's Aux input.

If you want your singing and the instrumental backing to all come out of the same speakers, you'll have to use a mixer or similar.

I have an old tiny Tascam G10 portable guitar speaker with extra line in, which works very well - mic plugs into the "Guitar in" socket, computer's "headphone out" into Line in, voila! Stereo to mono only, though (so I have to use a converter or adaptor). Unless I add another speaker..

For a session at BarCampLondon5, LV were kind enough to lend me a mini mic mixer, for 2 microphones and the computer's headphone out (gotta have those power ballad duets!). It can use either mains or battery power.

Their very pink party box (see above), which sells for £35 + P&P, includes:

  • a modified version of that mixer, with the necessary adaptors so that it can be connected to the headphone socket of your computer and to a home hi fi system to make use of your hi fi speakers
  • 2 x 3.5mm (ie. headphone) jack to 3.5mm jack connecting cables (you may need to get other cables and adaptors depending on your system but one of those cables should be OK for connecting computer headphone socket to mixer)
  • 1 microphone (there’s space on the mixer to plug in an extra mic, which they’ll be selling separately)
  • 1 month of access to premium songs, worth £7.99

Be warned again that the microphone supplied will be flourescent pink, as that's LV's standard colour! Nonetheless, their first consignment of several hundred boxes sold out very quickly, so you'll have to ask LV to notify you when another batch arrives.

While the mixer will have inputs for 2 mics, the kit only comes with 1 mic: a 2nd mic will be an optional extra.

Issues / problems / niggles

In the beta I encountered a couple of blips where the music was ahead of the lyrics, then the whole sentence appeared at once. Clearly this needs sorting out and hopefully it has been in the final release (I’ve not checked it yet as the songs concerned are now “premium”). With karaoke the current words of course need to be rigidly in sync with the associated music or it can all go horribly wrong, especially after a few beers. Which is part of the fun, perhaps, but I think there are enough ways in which karaoke can go horribly wrong without desyncing the words & music too!

Otherwise, the audio playback seems reliable, with rarely any pauses, skips or cut outs (though I have a fairly fast internet connection averaging 8 MBps - I'm not sure how well it would work with a slower connection). Again, this aspect needs to be rock solid.

There have been some problems with the song conversion. I've spotted 2 songs where the words were ahead of the music or vice versa, and some where the lyrics and music were for entirely different songs, and have suggested that a "Report a problem with this song" button would be handy! Over time hopefully this sort of thing should be ironed out.

They seem to have got rid of most of the server errors from the beta, now.

The biggest issue is that the user interface still needs a lot of work, in my view. It takes too many clicks to do what should be intuitive.

An important usability point is that it’s really not obvious how you navigate between playlists – your own, your friends’ – and it takes too long to do so. You should be able to access other playlists when you’re viewing a particular playlist as standard, but you can’t – you only do that if you enter Edit playlist view.

You can't edit a Playlist name in the list of Playlists, it won't do it. The only way you can edit a Playlist name is to click on its title on the RIGHT of the Playlist view. There's a Change link by the Playlist name which you'd think would let you edit the Playlist name, but it only lets you see a list of other playlists. In which case I think it should say "Show all playlists", not "Change"!

You should be able to edit an existing playlist much more easily than currently. It takes too many clicks to do that (and it’s not obvious how, either). Personally I’d like an Edit link for playlists from the home page. In fact, I think when you go to a Playlist it should default to the Edit view. You can start singing a playlist from the Edit page anyway, so the “standard” playlist page to me serves no purpose other than to confuse (and add an extra unnecessary step).

When viewing a party you can’t start another party, you have to go to the home page first then start a new party from there. Even though there’s enough room to include a link to start a new party. And I feel the “Edit in playlist builder” link for a party playlist should be at the top as well as bottom of the playlist, as party lists can get long.

As regards friends, I think you should be allowed to control how much of your profiles your friends can see, can there be different classes of friends who see a limited profile, can you have public playlists, private playlists etc. Particularly as, if you accept an invitation to a party, you seem automatically to become a friend of everyone else who accepted! (My friends’ friends aren’t necessarily my friends but you don’t seem to have a choice, with LV). So at the moment assume all your “friends”, including co-party invitees, can see everything of yours: your age and other profile info, your playlists etc.

Yes I know, it's only songs, but as a general principle I'm pretty keen on user control of what others can and can't see. There are friends and there are friends! LV did tell me they’ll probably provide different privacy levels, but I suspect it’s not a priority.

Note also that “friendship” seems to be one way. If you invite someone, and they join, they can remove you as a friend - but you can't remove them! (hope they fix this).

So to summarise, to me the key issues are:

  1. fix all blips with songs – recognise (click arrow to stream, the link to download) this one, which I found today, for instance??! (which appropriately enough I’ve uploaded to blip.tv! It’s just about as recognisable as the earliest known recording of the human voice...). A “Report problem with this song” link is a necessity, in my view.
  2. a playlist should always be in “editable” mode: please get rid of the “view-only” view! It’s not necessary.
  3. it should handle long playlists, especially scrolling properly when you drag a song up or down a long playlist, better – there’ll be long lists for parties, I assure you!
  4. you should always be able (e.g. via dropdown menus) to immediately get to and view / edit / create any of your own playlists, separately from the list of your friends’ playlists, from any page, and similarly be able to get to view / edit / create any of your parties and their playlists from any page (e.g. when viewing or editing one playlist, it’s too many steps to change to editing another playlist) – instead of always having to go back to the Home page before you can do something else, another unnecessary time-wasting step!)
  5. navigation is too s-l-o-w – even on my 8 MBps broadband connection it takes too long to click from page to page (which is why quick access to edit views, without having to go to another page first, is even more important – if getting to and from the Home page was instantaneous, if each click didn’t take so long to do something, I wouldn’t make such a fuss about immediate access from every page to create or edit a playlist or party). More servers, faster servers, faster page loading?
  6. in the edit playlist view (Playlist Builder) you should be able to preview a particular individual song from an existing playlist by clicking on its name (at the moment you have to search for the song again and click it from the results list)
  7. you should be able to view and add playlists (or individual songs on a playlist) from a party playlist, yours or a friend’s party to which you’ve been invited – not just “personal” playlists
  8. the fullscreen karaoke player should allow more control on the fly; in particular, you should be able to pin the playlist and/or search list to the screen if you want, go to a song on the playlist immediately by clicking on its name, and add a song from the search results right after the currently-playing song (not just to the end of the playlist) – LV did tell me they’ll look at how to jump songs to the top of the list
  9. party management isn’t quite there yet e.g. how you invite existing LV friends as opposed to people who aren’t on LV yet (there should be one method for all), custom invite message for existing friends, lists of who you’ve invited, who’s accepted, who’s declined etc. (By the way their standard invite message say “vocal chords” which is of course an eggcorn)
  10. I still think people should be able to preview even premium songs, say just 30 seconds to check it's at the right pitch for them (and for diginomics "sampling" reasons), so they can decide whether to add the song to the playlist for a party etc - unless LV allow live pitch shifting of songs on the online service, see below!

Other points

LV are very Web 2.0. Fr’instance they have a Twitter account which you can follow for last minute deals at their live bars.

You can even install a widget (e.g. for Facebook or MySpace) showing your last songs sung, if you feel so inclined! I think though that better still would be the ability to mark certain of your playlists public so you can share them and let everyone (not just your friends) play them or import them. And make a scrollable widget for that. To me that would be more useful.

I've suggested allowing users to tag songs (and search for them) by genre (from a pre-set list of genres, to avoid duplication/confusion) and by album etc. Some show tunes from musicals (e.g. Sound of Music) are listed by show name, but others (e.g. Grease) by artist (Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing). More consistency and more info would be good, hence my suggestion about tags.

In terms of songs available, it could be a coincidence rather than a geek thing but most of those who turned up to my geek karaoke session at BarCampLondon5 (all women except one brave man!) particularly loved show tunes. So I (and we) hope LV will beef up their selection of songs from musicals and music theatre!

Tip: if you have a Net connection with monthly quota (e.g. 2GB a month) be careful how you use LuckyVoice, e.g. if you pause a song in the mini player, it seems to just mute it, but it's still downloading (on a loop!) and eating into your bandwidth allowance in the background without your realising it. Clear the search box to stop that.

Pitch shifting - changing the song's key up or down if it's not at the right pitch for the singer - isn't possible at the moment, though it's available at the live bars. Interestingly, after LV introduced it in response to many requests for it at the bars, it seems that in fact no one really uses it! As it's difficult to provide key change facilities over the Web (a different file in each key would have to be created), they're probably not going to consider it for the online offering unless maybe there's huge demand for it. (I suspect people don’t use the key change facility at the bars because it’s not obvious enough how to do it, or even that you can do it. Their staff ought to show people, as part of the initial run through.)

Verdict on LuckyVoice online

Quality

Of the songs I've tried so far, the quality of the backings is generally good, very close to the originals in terms of instrument sound and orchestration, including the harmonies from backing vocals.

Range, variety

The range of songs available is also impressive, from Amy Winehouse to songs from Carousel. It’s mainly modern popular songs of course, i.e. pop, rock, soul, RnB, dance, jazz etc. More show tunes would go down well, with the KaraokeCamp crowd at least!

No classical or opera yet that I could find, but I guess that's a bit niche (Cantolopera do offer “karaoke” CDs with collections of orchestral backings for selections of operatic arias as well as for specific composers etc, though their customer “support” seems to consist of not answering emails; a piano may be the best backing for classical singing if you can't get a live orchestra!). And there are no Mary Coughlan songs, but I suspect that's even more of a niche thing...

Summary

Music is something lots of people are passionate about. It's not just X Factor wannabes I can envisage using online karaoke. Many people enjoy singing just for the sheer love and fun of it, but are reluctant to sing in public, though they'd be willing to in front of their mates. Peter Hames, LV's business development manager, suggested that their service in a way offers a possible return to the old pre-war "friends singing round the piano" kind of socialising, but obviously an updated version of it!

So this latest move by LuckyVoice is a very logical extension of their private bars concept, and I think fills a gap in the market. True there are online karaoke services currently but they're generally a lot more basic e.g. just weedy MIDI files, or include the main vocal too which defeats the object of karaoke, and MySpace Karaoke is only available in USA and Canada at the moment.

With LV there's a decent range of songs and good quality productions at a fair price, and no doubt given their position you can also trust that it's all legal!

It’s great that LV have been open to constructive comments and have implemented some of my suggestions for improvement during the beta (which I therefore don’t mention here). I do hope they'll also incorporate my key suggestions above, as improving the user experience will really help them get customers to keep going back, and make it more enjoyable for people to keep using it! I think if they fix the blips and improve the interface, they’re really on to a winner here.

Full disclosure: after I'd sent them some feedback on the beta, LV kindly lent me a mini mic mixer and 1 mic to try it out at BarCampLondon5, and also gave me a voucher for a free early week 1 hour sing at their bar (because I hadn't been there before! I have been to K-Box. Avoid K-Box like the plague - unhelpful rude staff, booking price seems cheap but they hit you with hidden extras, and you can only drink what you buy (expensively) from them: they even spy on you over the CCTV in order to burst into your "private" room to stop you if you try to drink your own bottled water that you brought with you!).

Many thanks to Peter at LV for the loan and for taking on board so many of my detailed suggestions.

If you found this post of interest, you may also be interested in my posts on:

Note: although this post is plainly a review, I'm not risking posting any screencasts of singable videos from LuckyVoice to demo their service, not even very short excerpts of free songs, in case I fall foul of the copyright police! Such is the sad state of copyright, and hence our culture, today.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Microsoft SeaPort Search Enhancement Broker, Office Live add-in toolbar – how to uninstall / disable






Here’s tips on how to disable or get rid of two unwelcome additions that just seem to install themselves whether you choose to install them or not (unbeknownst to you, in the case of SeaPort at least!):
  1. Microsoft SeaPort Search Enhancement Broker.

  2. Office Live add-in toolbar.

What is Microsoft SeaPort Search Enhancement Broker?

The description against SeaPort in Services (see below) says:
“Enables the detection, download and installation of up-to-date configuration files for Microsoft Search Enhancement applications. Also provides server communication for the customer experience improvement program. If this service is disabled, search enhancement features such as search history may not work correctly.”
I’m not entirely sure from that description exactly what Seaport does, but I think I know how I got it: from Windows Live (see Back-story below if you’re interested).

How to get rid of i.e. disable Microsoft SeaPort Search Enhancement Broker

From an online forum I found out SeaPort was running as a service, so here’s how to stop it if you want to - at your own risk etc (if you believe that it’s needed for “search enhancement features” then feel free to leave it alone if you wish!).

I like keyboard shortcuts so this is the way I’d use:
  1. Vista: click the Start menu and in the "Start Seach" box just type (without the quote marks) "services.msc", then hit Enter.

  2. XP:
    1. Hold down the Windows key (next to the Alt key) and tap the r key and release both keys. (Non-keyboard way - Start menu, Run)

    2. In the window that pops up, type: services.msc
  3. Click OK and a window like the following should come up:


  4. Scroll down to locate SeaPort under the Name column and click on that line to select it.

  5. Then rightclick on the highlighted SeaPort line and choose Properties:


  6. In the window that appears, click the dropdown arrow under Startup type and choose Disabled (or Manual, if you want to play it safe and allow it to start itself up manually – but then you’re not really stopping it from doing whatever it wants to do on your system).


  7. Then click OK, but before you do that, if you want to stop SeaPort as it’s currently running, click the Stop button (outlined in red above), let it do its thing and then OK.

  8. There you go, it’s stopped and Disabled from starting again (unless you picked Manual), and you can close the Services window.

  9. (If you have problems with your Search History and want to get it back, just repeat the above but choose Automatic from the dropdown in step 6 instead of Disabled.)

Note: Is SeaPort related to searching IE history? My Internet Explorer history sidebar had recently stopped working (I couldn’t access the sidebar for History, Favorites, anything, though the info was still recorded behind the scenes) but I’ve got it back now through reverting to IE 7 (I was using IE 8 beta 2) and fiddling with the add-ons, so I don’t think it’s anything to do with SeaPort. Especially as I’ve always stopped SeaPort from accessing the Internet whenever my firewall popped up a warning about it, yet I can access my IE history. Maybe it’s only the searching of my Search History that’ll be affected by SeaPort, who knows. I think it’s unrelated anyway. But I'm mentioning this so you know, in case getting rid of SeaPort causes history problems for you.

How to get rid of i.e. uninstall the Microsoft Office Live addin toolbar

This one’s easier, thanks to this (to uninstall the download):
  1. Go to Start menu, Control Panel.

  2. Then doubleclick Add/Remove Programs (XP) or Programs and Features (Vista).

  3. Wait for the list to come up, scroll down to find “Microsoft Office Live Add-in Beta”, and then click Uninstall or Remove and follow the instructions to remove the add in.

Back-story i.e. allow me my grumble


Those two things got installed recently through upgrading my Microsoft Windows Live Writer blogging software, which I’ve been using for a few months and had been really happy with (expect a review at some point). But those two additions I’m not so happy with, as I didn’t ask for them and wasn’t told about them, even if they let people use Word, PowerPoint or Excel with their Microsoft Office Live “online workspaces”, kind of Microsoft’s competitor to Google’s Docs.
Put it this way, I would prefer that all Windows Live software boxes are not ticked by default when you try to install just one product. I’m pretty sure I unticked everything except Live Writer when I tried to upgrade Writer, but the toolbar and “Seaport Search Enhancement” still got installed. Maybe I'm mistaken, but I didn't see any option to untick the Toolbar. It also used up some of my bandwidth capacity downloading 134MB of Windows Live software (including for Messenger, Mail, Gallery, etc) just to install the one Live product I wanted. I unticked the toolbar from Word’s View, Toolbars menu but it kept coming back whenever I reopened Word so I went hunting for how to get rid of it. It would have been helpful to see an explanation of SeaPort when it was being installed, so I knew what it was, rather than being surprised when my firewall first alerted me to its presence.

(UPDATED to move howto higher etc. )

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Christmas 2008 wishlist - top 10







Dear Santa

Most of the stuff I'd like for Xmas isn't actually easily available, if at all. You know me. But hey, don't you like a challenge? And it's not impossible to get them - the technology's up to it, it's just that no one is making them. Or making them anymore. Or, maybe, I just don't know where to get them from.

Yep - the things I want the most are things that could be, but aren't. Or things I used to be able to get, but can't now (why oh why do they stop producing good stuff, anyway? Classics will never stop being in demand).

So here's my very random X'mas wishlist: high tech, low tech, or just no tech.

(I'll leave out pyjamas that button up all the way to the top and my even more specific requirements as to undergarments, for now. And the answer to why there's no single word for "trouser leg" when we use "sleeve" instead of "shirt arm"!)

10. Motorbikes / scooters - big wheels, reverse gear, fuel gauge and clock

Why do most scooters have tiny wheels that make you feel every bump in the road? Is it because, hey, scooters are mostly for women (who wouldn't throw their dainty legs across rough, tough motorbikes, oh no), and women have more cushioning in their nether regions don't they, so they can like it or (literally) lump it?

Well never mind women, think joints. For both genders. It ain't that easy to get your leg over, so to speak. Especially as you get older and creakier. Scooters are much easier that motorbikes in that regard. But not if bumpiness cancels out that advantage.

Why can't they make more scooters with bigger, more stable wheels, dammit? And more powerful scooters with bigger engines, too.

And while I'm on the subject, why don't all scooters and motorcycles come with a reverse gear and a fuel gauge and built-in clock as standard? (Crash helmets, well, you just have to keep trying till you find one that fits your shape of head.)

A friend also whinges about many motorbikes being too high for most women, and indeed many men, even if you get the seat lowered to the lowest possible height. Maybe BMW and the like think that their image would be tarnished if anyone less than a beefy 6 foot tall man was to be seen riding one of their bikes around. But in these economic climes, wouldn't it be better to sell more bikes to the many shorter people who'd buy your brand if only you made motor bikes that were lower in height? Especially tourers.

9. MP3 recorder / player with Mini Disc-like editing

Because I record speeches at BarCamps etc, or rehearsals, or (with permission only of course) shows e.g. concerts I'm singing in, I want an MP3 / WAV recorder - not just a player.

I do have one (a Zoom H4 Handy Recorder field recorder, photo below), but it's quite bulky and not very user friendly in its controls especially in terms of recording and playback.

Zoom H4 - photo from Wikipedia, by Ed Poor

It would be great to have a small, user-friendly music player that also has decent recording facilities - built-in microphone, line in, with high quality recordings (or better still selectable quality) - particularly if it's geared for vocal recordings. It should handle as many formats as possible - MP3 and WAV minimum - and take memory cards that are 2 or 4 GB in size, ideally bigger. And could I have one at a reasonable price, pretty please?

So far, so possible. But what I've not found yet is a portable MP3 /WAV recorder that has editing features as powerful and flexible as you could get with the now pretty much dead MiniDisc format. I'm talking really easy divide, combine, erase, move of tracks. To quote Wikipedia:

"MiniDiscs can be edited very quickly even on portable machines. Tracks can be split, combined, moved or deleted with ease either on the player or uploaded to PC (only with the latest version of Sony's PC based SonicStage V4.3 software) and edited there."

I hope we'll get that in the future (and bookmarking specific spots in tracks for playback would be great too). A player / recorder combined with DAB radio and the ability to record from the radio would be the icing on the cake. But better editing on portable recorders will do me just fine!

8. Huge, microwaveable, dishwasher safe coffee / tea mugs by Brookshaw

I like a huge cuppa tea. Or coffee. Most mugs are too small for me.

I thought I'd found the ideal mug when I came across Dunoon Stoneware's "Nevis" range with a big 0.48L capacity and lovely large handles.

Thing is, I liked Jane Brookshaw's cheerful bright animal cartoon designs the best. In fact I loved them, and still do. They make me smile. I bought one or two of every single design in her range.

But, I can't replace my chipped mugs because Dunoon don't do those particular designs anymore (just wishy washy pastel ones, or mugs with less comfortable handles, or mugs that are simply too small).

Bring back Brookshaw's punchy funny designs, please! I'd buy more, I really would. It's an own goal there for Dunoon because I don't buy their mugs now. Yet I would if they still sold the classic Brookshaw range, pictured below (photo by me, licensed under CC - see bottom of page).

7. Straight backed low chair (see, I did say "no tech"!)

It seems impossible to get a chair that has a 90 degree angle between seat and back. They all slope backwards. I know it seems to be received wisdom these days that a 135 degree angle is best for the back, but I still want a straight back chair.

As Alexander Technique practitioners will tell you, a straight backed chair is useful for Alexander. I'm no expert but learning Alexander Technique has really helped me, though I'd be the first to admit I don't do it often enough.

But it's near impossible to find a totally straight backed chair in the UK. Like I said, they all seem to slope at an angle. I'm still looking.

(And I need it to be low because I'm short, and on most chairs made for grown ups my feet don't touch the ground!)

6. Old-fashioned roller skates, updated


(Credit: photo by bulldog1, licensed under an Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic Creative Commons licence)

Remember those skates you could wear over your trainers? I want something like that, portable, lightweight, easily removable and packable away, which you can slip on quickly over your shoes when you emerge from the Tube. Wouldn't that make commuting much faster? (if perhaps more risky for those people who won't get outta mah waaaaaay!).

Better still, comfy roller shoes with retractable wheels which pop out with the push of a button, and just as easily pop away again.

I've seen some but they're not easy to walk in or the wheels are too flimsy, like toy skates. I want real, usable, hardwearing ones.

And it's got to be quad i.e. four wheels, for extra stability. As I probably will fall over, given the chance. (I tried Heelys, once. Couldn't keep my balance and nearly had a heart attack. Cross that one out.)

The closest I've come across online are Aircoast sneakers but I don't know anyone who's tried them (and their site somehow doesn't inspire confidence in me - plus, their roller skate shoes are out of stock, not a good sign). The idea of electric powered roller shoes sounds excellent to indolent me, though!

(Talking about footwear, I've given up on LL Bean Puff Boots. Best indoor slippers I ever had: warm, comfy, hardwearing, you could step in and out of them easily, but they don't make them anymore. They'd probably be on my wishlist if I thought there was any hope of their being manufactured again. Which there isn't.)

5. Hip belt bag / holster for large PDA / mobilephone / cellphone

I lurve my gadgets but I don't want to be too weighed down carting them round in a backpack or bag.

I've tried Krusell cases; I've tried (and hated) the possibly fashionable but definitely impractical UrbanTool hipholster, which I rated as more for victim than fashion. No luck there.

I don't want a bag that you have to thread through a separate belt (I may not always want to belt my jeans, for a start).

Nope, the belt bit needs to be integrated, in my view. So that I can just strap the whole thing on in a jiffy. (No sniggering, you there at the back!)

So, I think they've got the right idea with "bumbags" ("fanny packs" I believe the Americans call 'em, and no sniggering again I say!). I don't care that they're the height of unfashion.

I like that you can strap the bag round your hips just by clicking the fastening into the buckle or clasp. Easy release too. Perfect. That's the sort of thing I want. No hands needed, and hips can take the load far better than shoulders or back, so they're much more ergonomic too in my view.

However, they need to be larger and stronger, and have big enough pockets / compartments for gadgets not just a purse (and have several pockets not just one). The fastenings have to be made of strong metal too, not plastic. (I've used bum bags with plastic buckles for phones etc. Trust me, the plastic teeth bend, the clasp slips out, and the whole thing falls down!)

A nice strong shoulder holster would be a good possible alternative - but with pockets or holders / holsters suitable for gadgets rather than guns, obviously.

The closest I've seen are these Happy Cow belt bags ("Happy Cow", I know, I know!), some of which even convert into a holster - but you can't click it on and off easily, and I'm too lazy to put on a belt with a tongue etc. I want an easy snap on / off fastening, just like on a bum bag. And I want zips for the pockets, not buttons.

So, I'm still looking for the ideal cellphone / gadget belt. One day, I may well have to get one made to order.

4. Endless Pool

Treadmills for runners and stationary exercise cycles are all very well, but I'm not much of a runner or a cyclist. Yet I'd still like to keep, err I mean, get, fit.

I swam a lot in my teens. Almost every day, in fact. Never up to swim team speeds, but I was very at home in the water.

But I've not swum for years now.

Partly because these days most public pools are too cold for wimpy me (I tried a posh hotel pool once - weekend in the hotel courtesy of my then employers. Beautifully warm, bliss!).

And partly because I've become more and more fastidious with age. When I think of pools, I'm immediately reminded of a brilliant Private Eye cartoon I once saw, of a public pool with separate lanes labelled something like: "Veruccas". "Plasters". "Other people's wee".

You understand why I'm not exactly drawn to swimming these days.

But, I'd love to have a private swimming pool. I'm talking a tiny pool that's like a treadmill for swimmers, which generates a perpetual current you swim against: the Endless Pool swimming machine. Unlike many of my other wishlist items, this is something that you can get, even in the UK. My place just isn't big enough to have a "real" pool, but maybe it's possible steal a small patch from an already small garden?

And oh, Santa, while we're on the subject, the £13,000-plus needed to pay for an Endless Pool (and to put a roof and walls round the bit of garden, as an open air pool in England is to me only for the terminally masochistic) would also come in handy!

3. Virtual machines for the masses

I've loved the idea of virtual machines since I first heard of them a few years back, where you can run different operating systems on the same hardware as "virtual machines". As Microsoft put it in relation to their Virtual PC 2007 product, you can:

"create separate virtual machines on your Windows desktop, each of which virtualizes the hardware of a complete physical computer. Use virtual machines to run operating systems such as MS-DOS, Windows, and OS/2. You can run multiple operating systems at once on a single physical computer and switch between them as easily as switching applications—instantly, with a mouse click."

But I have in mind not so much being able to switch between different operating systems (which could include Linux etc as well as Windows), as being able to use virtualisation for security and convenience - even if you run just the one operating system on your virtual machine.

Wouldn't it be great if you could run a base operating system like Windows XP, on which you could install your favourite programs, and then use it to your heart's content - but if anything goes wrong or it slows down (or it catches a virus or other malware), you can just wipe it all out with a few keystrokes or mouse clicks, and then quickly and easily reinstate a fresh, clean (previously-saved) copy of your virtual machine with all your favourite programs already on it?

Virtualization technology does exist now, e.g. the open source VirtualBox, or the fairly well known VMWare, but it seems to me that it's still not quite there yet, especially in terms of the average consumer being able to use it effectively, easily and reasonably cheaply.

I hope it will get there sooner rather than later.

2. Proper mobile internet, and non-geographic mobile phone calls

There are 2 things I'd like to happen in the mobile industry, from a consumer viewpoint.

Mobile data charging

First, I wish that UK mobile phone network operators would offer combo voice, text and data price plans.

Plans like T-Mobile's Flext do let customers use their monthly allowance for voice calls and SMS messages in whatever combination the consumer wishes, but data isn't included e.g. mobile Web or email access. It really should be.

To me, that would be a lot fairer than so called "unlimited" data usage plans which really aren't. And people would be paying for what they're using, within their allowance.

Alternatively, if truly unlimited data at a fixed monthly tariff were a reality (rather than a pretence), it would really help the mobile internet take off - which would be good for all involved.

Calls from mobile phones to non-geographic phone numbers

Second, I've always thought it was unfair that consumers who use a mobile phone to call a non-geographic telephone number (0845, 0870, 0871 and the like) get charged more than if they phone via a landline telephone, and furthermore that the cost of that call is not within the customer's inclusive minutes allowed for the month, but is charged extra on top of that.

My wish here: they should cost the same as geographic numbers, and be included within the standard voice call allowance (unless they're special premium rate numbers whose much higher rates are clearly made known to the consumer).

Of course, businesses advertise those telephone numbers and make consumers use them because of "revenue sharing" - the business who is called gets a cut of the (higher) price paid by the consumer to the telephone company or network for the phone call.

In May 2008, as a result of consumer concerns about the lack of transparency on the cost of calls, UK comms regulator Ofcom did consult on changes to 0870 and on Extending Premium Rate Services Regulation to 087 Numbers (see the news release "Tightening the rules on 08 telephone numbers": 0870 charges should be reduced and tariffs better displayed and 0871 numbers subject to new regulation).

However, disappointingly in October 2008 Ofcom decided to suspend work on 0870 call charges. While they said they aimed to "publish a further statement on implementing any changes to 0870 policy by the end of the year... " and "publish a statement on its proposal to bring the most expensive 087 numbers (including 0871, 0872 and 0873 numbers) within the remit of PhonepayPlus, in the autumn", it's now nearly Christmas and there's no sign of either statement.

I don't know why Ofcom aren't protecting consumers by putting a stop to this very obvious "rip off" (as many have called it, for years) - there was an attempt in 2005 which got nowhere, and I fear that this latest effort will go nowhere too.

More consumer organisations (like the Communications Consumer Panel, formerly the Ofcom Consumer Panel) and consumers ought to lobby Ofcom and the government on this issue. Meanwhile, we consumers can try to protect ourselves by using (and contributing phone numbers to) Say No to 0870 - a site which lists geographic alternatives to non-geographic numbers. If you call the geographic number instead, it will be included in your inclusive minutes, so obviously you're better off using the geographic number, especially when calling from your cellphone.

It's not all bad news - Ofcom recently tried to publicise the use of 03 phone numbers, which are "real" non-geographic numbers. They're non-geographic numbers which consumers can safely use in the knowledge that calls to them aren't charged more than calls to national rate 01 or 02 numbers, and furthermore will be counted within the customer's inclusive minutes. (Ofcom itself has 03 numbers for the public to use to contact Ofcom.)

Indeed, recently (as Ofcom noted) the UK Department of Health issued a consultation on the use of 084 telephone numbers in the NHS, as they're considering banning the use of 084 numbers to access NHS services because, as they put it, "patients who use 084 numbers are paying more than the equivalent cost of a local rate call to access services provided by the NHS". The consultation ends on 31 March 2009 so if you're interested in this area, please do consider responding.

Of course, that doesn't mean that non-government departments (or indeed government departments outside the NHS) will start using 03 numbers instead of 084 numbers. But I hope it's a sign that momentum towards 03 numbers is building up, at least within some government departments. I'm a bit more cynical as to whether private commercial businesses will adopt 03 numbers unless the regulators make them.

1. Truly mobile computing - and Net access everywhere

For this biggest wish of mine to come true, a number of things will have to happen.

  1. Mobile computing devices need to get lighter and more usable and allow faster, more efficient data entry - but in my view netbooks aren't quite it, nor smartphones. Convergence of mobile devices is on its way, but who knows how long it'll take.
  2. Internet access needs to be ubiquitous - we need truly mobile, flexible, full Net access everywhere, at decent speeds, without having to pay a fortune or being forced to hunt out WiFi hotspots. Including free public wifi and full mobile phone / cellphone coverage in Tube trains and on Tube platforms, which is well worth putting up with "Honey I'm on the Tube" for, in my view! And as I've said above, unlimited data access including Web, bulletin boards, chat etc. That would be the real killer app for wireless.

We're certainly nowhere near there with wearable computers yet. For visual output devices, a.k.a. monitor screens, there are video glasses or head mounted displays like the Vuzix iWear "video eyewear" "personal video displays", but these headsets don't (yet) connect to computers, only DVD players, gaming consoles and the like. And you can't wear them if you wear glasses (they could make them like sunglasses that fit over regular spectacles / glasses, but they don't seem to yet.) Plus, some people just don't want to look like a cyborg. Believe it or not.

More small laptops (i.e. UMPCs, mini-notebooks, subnotebooks or netbooks as they're variously called) have become available this year, at long last - triggered in part by the (to me, not at all unexpected) phenomenal success of the Asus Eee. Problem is, any portable computer that's just over 1 kg in weight is still too heavy for me, and their size is still too unwieldy when you're standing up on the Tube.

By the way, if you're in the market for a sub-notebook, I wouldn't recommend the Eee myself, because I feel Asus messed their customers round. And I'd also strongly advise against the Vye PC: much as I'd like to recommend a small British company which makes what at first sight seems a nice product, the "support" I got, even from the supposedly customer-friendly USA, was nothing short of appalling, and what should come as standard with the model I bought, didn't. However, people I know with true tech expertise have actually bought, and liked, the Acer Aspire One - so it's probably worth a try especially if you want to use Linux

It's also interesting that recent models of the Acer Aspire One even come with a SIM card slot so you can use it for mobile internet if you have a data plan with your mobile phone network provider.

But, it's still too large and heavy for what I want.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that (as I've said many times before) the device I most crave is a handheld computer / H/PC / palmtop computer along the lines of an updated Psion 5mx, with the same weight, form factor / size and long battery life, and the keyboard exactly as it is, but with added mobile phone SIM, wifi, Bluetooth, email, fully fledged web browser (with Javascript and Java), and colour screen (with backlighting), which runs at a decent speed. User friendly. Sold at a fair price. Which lets you use third party applications e.g. your preferred email or chat / Twitter client. And allows easy transfer of data to and from a desktop computer with copy and paste.

(As an aside, one feature of a Psion application, Datasafe, which I really like is that when you leave an open password-protected page by switching to another application, when you switch back it asks for your password again. For better security all password-protected documents on all operating systems should do that, in my view.)

(Another aside - it may seem a minor point but devices, especially smartphones and the like which are aimed at business users, must be able to be made silent, and stay that way, when in a quiet environment - like a classical concert! No hidden nasties that spring to life suddenly despite your best efforts. That was a major defect of the Nokia 7710, that if you turned it on (e.g. to check email during a business meeting) it played the Nokia "welcome" tune and you just couldn't disable that.)

Comparative photo of Psion 5mx (top right), Asus Eee and Evesham laptop by RTPeat, licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA licence

The Psion 5mx was more than just a PDA and I'm still waiting for someone to deliver a modern computing device that has the features and advantages of a 5mx.

It's light and portable. Only 350 grams, including 2 AA batteries, which last for 15 - 20 hours. That's right, hours.

It's "instant on" (and off), whereas my XP computer takes at least 15 minutes to boot. It even saves stuff in RAM if you forgot to save before you switched it off, though obviously it's a good idea to always remember to save.

Zoom features are built in, so you can zoom in and out of any application - essential for something that doesn't have a full sized screen.

The landscape screen is perfect for Web access.

But most of all, I need easy, quick text input via a decent built-in hardware keyboard, or at the very least a non-miniscule onscreen keyboard with non-losable stylus (attached with a retractable cord perhaps!).

Why? Because two hands are still faster than one. Touch typing on a QWERTY keyboard is much faster than linear speech, even though voice recognition (speak orders to your computer?) is progressing. Mobile phone keyboards I use only when I have to, not because I want to. I don't reply to SMS texts as quickly as I should because most phone keys are too painfully slow and error-prone to pick text out on - even with predictive text.

The 5mx's integrated slide-forward keyboard is a design classic, a real keyboard with proper travel, which you can touch type on (at least if your fingers aren't too sausagey). An add-on Bluetooth keyboard might be livable with if it was very small and portable and had good travel on the keys. A decent on-screen keyboard like the one on the Nokia 7710 smartphone might do too, as long as it came with with non-losable stylus (attached with flexible cord!).

Granted, something the size of the 5mx would be a bit bulky to be used as a mobile phone: it wouldn't be very comfortable to hold to your ear. But that's exactly what Bluetooth earpieces / headsets are for. Keep the device in your bag or pocket (or belt bag, dare I say!), and use the earpiece for phone calls.

0. World peace

Just in case you thought I'd forgotten that one. (Hey, it seems a lot more likely than getting an Obama for the UK, anyway.)

Happy holidays, one and all!

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Security updates for Internet Explorer & Firefox 3.0.5 / 2.0.0.19 - upgrade ASAP!






Both of the major browsers Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox recently issued important security updates.

You've probably heard about the critical Internet Explorer security flaw which even hit the mainstream media, e.g. see the BBC news report which noted that the security hole could let criminals "take control of people's computers and steal their passwords".

If you use Internet Explorer or Firefox (particularly the former), you're well advised to upgrade your web browser ASAP:
For those of you who aren't using Firefox yet - why not? It's as easy to use as Internet Explorer, a lot more powerful in terms of free useful or fun extensions or add ons you can install, and probably most importantly it's generally a lot more secure (especially if you download the free NoScript extension). I plan to write a short post extolling the virtues (but a couple of minuses) of Firefox soon, to help persuade the unconvinced (you know who you are!).

I actually use 3 different browsers for different purposes: Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Opera (and I'm playing with Google's Chrome). E.g. if I'm going to a site I don't know or completely trust yet, I'll use Firefox with NoScript. If I'm impatient or need speed I use Opera, e.g. as a reference browser with lots of tabs open at the same time relating to a subject I'm looking into. And I use IE if a site just won't work in anything else, or just to split out identities (for one identity I login to Webmail etc in Firefox, for another in IE, etc.)

Friday, 12 December 2008

Open & print .ps PostScript files (Windows)






If you download / receive a document in Adobe PostScript .ps format on a Windows computer, you may find that you can't easily view it or even open it, let alone print it out. Which may be a problem if you need to read that file!

How to view or print a .PS file in Windows

The easiest way I've found to see and print PostScript files in Windows is this:

  1. Download and install GhostScript (free for non-commercial use).

  2. Download and install GhostView, aka GSview (also free).

  3. Launch Ghostview (GSview.exe) and File, Open the .ps file in GhostView - not in Ghost Script, which just presents a scary blank window. It should display fine in Ghost View:


  4. Then just read or print it from GhostView as normal - make sure that "Windows GDI printer" is ticked under "Print Method", outlined in red below (it should be already, but check it in case):


Related tips / issues

Convert PS file to PDF

With GhostView you can easily convert the currently-open PS file to the more common PDF file format.

Choose File menu, Convert, and OK the default options (or tweak 'em first if you want, e.g. to convert only selected pages):

Then just browse to where you want to save the .pdf file, and enter the filename you want (but after the filename make sure you add ".pdf" without the quotes, before you finally hit "Save").

Automatically open .ps file in web browser

A bonus is that after you install GhostView, if you click a link to a PostScript file in a web browser like Internet Explorer or Firefox, and you choose Open, it will thereafter automatically open in GhostView.

Note

PostScript is used a lot for electronic publishing / desktop publishing, e.g. by universities / academics, but perhaps not very often otherwise. Still, sometimes when you're searching for information on the internet, what you're looking may be available only as a PS file.

When I was trying to find help or a guide on how to print a Postscript file, at first I could only find webpages or posts which advised using PrintFile or doing even scarier tweaks - but it takes time to try to figure out and input the right settings for your particular printer, and it just didn't work for me however much I tweaked things. The method I suggest above is much easier, simpler and faster: I hope this tip saves you some time trying to hunt for solution to the Windows PostScript printing issue!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Notebook computers & (female) UK consumers






So a survey of UK consumers, published in November 2008, conducted for computer microprocessor corporation AMD by market research outfit YouGov, found that we Brits (77%) value having Internet access over a car (54%) or washing machine (66%).

That's the bit that's been getting the most headlines.

I want to pick up more on the part that (according to the Netimperative news report) claims to show, in relation to notebook computers:

"Women surveyed fall into the ‘Mobilites’ category, as portability seems to be a more important buying factor - almost half (46%) voted weight as one of the important factors, compared to just 39% of men."

I think the emphasis there perhaps isn't quite right.

To me as a female, yes weight is one of the most important (if not the most important) factor for me when buying a laptop computer - but it's not because I value greater portability or mobility as such over other factors like speed or features. It's because I need portability, period.

Let's face it, women are on average physically less strong than men. That's simply a general fact. We just can't lug around heavy stuff as easily as big men can. For women, yes, size does count!

Something that's "portable" for men may not be portable at all for women.

There's no point in a laptop having all the latest technology, fast processor and whizzy graphics if its weight is such that it's not in fact practicable for me to carry it around with me.

That's why my cut off point for laptops is now 1 kg. If it weighs over 1 kg (like the HP Mini-Note) then I won't consider buying it as my portable computer, no matter how sophisticated or indeed good value for money it is otherwise.

I'll just look for the best I can get that's under 1 kg - i.e. I look only at "sub-notebooks".

It's not a question of levelling the playing field, but of enabling me to get on to the playing field in the first place!

If all "portable" computers were lighter than 1 kg, then I'd be considering other factors. But for now, weight is what counts the most with me - purely because if it isn't light enough for me to carry around with me comfortably, then it's as good as useless to me.

I'm sure I'm not the only consumer who takes this approach - it's not just women but teenagers / children too, and indeed men with back problems, and people generally who value their backs, who will prefer ultra-portable UMPC (ultra mobile personal computers) and netbooks.

It's great that netbooks are increasingly being produced in greater quantities. But there need to be even more of them, and even lighter, smaller ones. It's a big marketing opportunity which I hope computer manufacturers will run with - that would be good for all of us. And maybe one day I'll have my dream gadget of a netbook that's as small and light as a Psion 5mx, with as touchtypable a keyboard - but with a mobile phone and wifi too...