Compact cameras have arrived at That Stage

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday January 26th 2008 in The Guardian
“Compact cameras have arrived at That Stage – The Guardian headline

I am in the jungle, filming in the heart of Amazonia. Not much room in my backpack for mobile phones, game consoles or laptops but just enough for a pair of compact cameras with which to attempt to capture the nuanced colourations of the red howler monkey, the pink river dolphin, the scarlet mosquito bite and the purple leech gash. I have a Sony Cybershot DSC-T200 and a Casio EX-S880, two cameras crammed to point of madness with the latest innovations in digital photography.

Compact cameras have arrived at That Stage. They work very well. Resolution is high. We have swiftly leapt from two to three to five to eight to 12 megapixels. Memory cards are cheap and contain far more capacity than could ever be sanely used. I slipped an 8GB stick into the Cybershot without thinking. No matter how many photos I take, they will rattle around in that cavern of memory like a pea in a cathedral. So we can take more pictures than ever before. We can lodge them on more photosharing sites than are necessary to store the sum of human knowledge.


This blog was posted in Guardian column

What witchcraft is this?

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday January 19th 2008 in The Guardian
“Motorola U9: What witchcraft is this? – The Guardian headline

It is as if you were looking at a perfectly ordinary spectacles case that suddenly decided to show you a television programme.

I’m reviewing the Motorola U9 phone today. It is a shiny clamshell in the old Motorola PEBL style, not unlike a soap holder in shape and feel. It has all the usual features, being a quad-band GSM phone with EDGE and GPRS for WAP and other data uses, and equipped with a 2 megapixel camera, Bluetooth 2.0 and the familiar flat and sexy Motorola keypad. The model I am using is that gorgeous violet colour Cadbury used for the foil on its Dairy Milk bars years ago. This is a perfect handbag phone: entirely cute, entirely serviceable. There’s a calendar, a music player, Java games, templates and snazzy screensavers; it is very lightweight and has a good battery. Altogether a perfectly fine, well designed, reasonably eye-catching but frankly unremarkable phone. We move on now, surely?


But wait! The U9 has two displays. Open the clamshell and there’s the usual LCD screen, bright and clear, but close it and there’s a screensaver flickering in the surface of the lid. Well, yes, but we’ve all seen that, too, haven’t we, a small window or secondary screen on the cover of a phone? So what’s new?


This blog was posted in Guardian column

Social networking through the ages

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday January 12th 2008 in The Guardian
“Social networking through the ages” – The Guardian headline

There is some deep human instinct that compels us to take a wild and open territory and divide it into citadels, independent city states, MySpaces and Facebooks

Much ink, electronic and atomic, has been expended on the subject of social networking and web 2.0. First, let’s decide on how this last is pronounced. “Web two” won’t do. “Web two point oh” is common, but I heard it as “web two dot oh” from the lips of Sir Tim Berners-Lee OM himself and since he is the only begetter of the web, I shall take my lead from him, the most influential Briton since… well, he has no rivals. Brian Blessed, perhaps.

Web 2.0 was christened, so far as I am aware, by Tim O’Reilly. Oh really? No, sir, O’Reilly. He was one of the early advocates of open source programming, and greatly championed Perl, the language my father speaks fluently but which involves too much brain power and concentration for the likes of me.

These days web 2.0 refers both to user-generated content and to social networking sites. Rather than passively searching, browsing and eyeballing the billions of pages of the web, millions now contribute their videos, their journals, their music, their photos, their lives.


This blog was posted in Guardian column

Chasing the perfect smartphone

Column published on Saturday January 5th 2008 in The Guardian
“Dork Talk” – The Guardian headline

Chasing the perfect smartphone is a frustrating game. This one is perfect but it doesn’t have Wi-Fi, that one would be ideal if only it had GPS. The other is OK but isn’t 3G. Aha, this is it! Oh bother, it can’t do video calls. And so on. Not that I actually need all those features, it’s just that for us Knights of the smartphone Grail the terms of the quest demand the One Device That Has It All.

And here comes the high-end Glofiish X800 Pocket PC running Windows for mobiles (professional). It really does seem to be as loaded as anything out there. Now, I have to say I’m not a fan of Windows for mobiles – all those maddeningly small menus, submenus and fiddly nested commands torment me almost beyond endurance, as do the horrors of trying to synchronise with anything other than a PC. Were it not for Missing Sync’s suite of programs that allow powerful and controllable syncing between Macs and mobile operating systems, I’d be in a home by now. For all that, I’ve lived for weeks using HTC and Palm devices that run WM5 and WM6, and I happily concede that Microsoft’s cut-down OS does have strengths.

Glofiish is made by E-Ten and you can colour me impressed. It is true 3.5G. That’s nothing to do with gigabyte memory, by the way, but indicates “third and a half generation” capability. In short, it obtains the highest data transfer speeds possible in mobile telephony. It will first try to pick up HSDPA or UMTS signals from the network, then EDGE, then GPRS and finally good old data-free GMS. Major population centres will allow it to gallop like a thoroughbred through its full 3.5G paces, but if you live in the country, you’ll be lucky to get much more than the donkey speeds of GPRS.


This blog was posted in Guardian column

Why I love smart toothbrushes and loathe internet plug-ins

Column published on Saturday December 22nd 2007 in The Guardian
“Why I love smart toothbrushes and loathe internet plug-ins” – The Guardian headline

Stephen on the crazy world of Ogg Vorbis, plug-ins and incompatibility, and the joys of using a smart electric toothbrush


There is fury in the web community on account of Apple and Nokia’s reported bullying of the W3 consortium, the body (headed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee) that lays down the standards for the web. The casus belli is this: in the same way that all browsers are capable of reading baseline picture formats .gif, .jpg and .png, so the latest implementation of the web language HTML 5.0, due out soon, had planned to incorporate a baseline audio and video format, or “codec”, to stop having to load plug-ins for QuickTime, Real, Flash, Windows Media, etc. This was welcomed by the developer community, whose preferred codec is Ogg Vorbis: this weird, Terry Pratchett-derived name signifies an entity of higher quality as an audio codec than MP3, and has the advantage common to all Open Source software of being free and available for development by everyone.


This blog was posted in Guardian column