A trade journal of a still-emerging field, written by Adam Tinworth.

Posts from the Reviews Category

A very long time ago, I accepted a Three mobile broadband dongle for review. The experience was something of a mixed bag, with it rapidly proving useless once I travelled beyond major urban centres. Seven years is a long time in technology, though, and mobile broadband is now an essential part of my life – enough that I get a data connection for my iPhone AND my iPad as soon as I go abroad these days.

A few weeks ago, I was approached by Three again, this time to review one of their portable wifi hotspots the Huawei E5330. Now, I must confess in advance that in the years between the two review opportunities, I’ve become a Three customer, using their service for both my iPhone and my iPad. I no longer have any serious concerns about their network coverage.

Two things tickled my curiosity this time around:

  1. I’ve been wondering for a while if I really needed to be buying a 4G-capable version of the iPad (especially with the iPad Pro now on sale…). Could I save myself a bunch of cash next time around and just use a WiFi version with tethering from a MiFi-like device?
  2. While I often tether off my phone to give my laptop connection on the move, that has some very serious consequences for the battery life of the phone. And as any regular iPhone user knows, you don’t want to be eroding that battery faster than your have to.

The WiFi hub in your pocket

And you know what, technology really moves on, doesn’t it? All the faff of plugging a dongle in and connecting using specialist software is a thing of the past. Once your tiny ( and really pocketable) hub is charged up, you hit the on switch, and within a few seconds, you’re online. Apple’s habit of sharing your credentials between devices automatically meant that I didn’t even have to think about it, once I’d manually connected one device (although this was to have consequences, too…). My iPad happily grabbed the signal, but my phone did, too, unless I manually intervened. Open my laptop, and it was online, too.

Three mobile broadband in use

Despite my joy at the lack of dialler software, it’s well worth grabbing and downloading the phone app that supports the hub. It gives a bunch of extra control over the device – and a quick way of checking your allowance. And that, it transpired, is something that I should have done more quickly…

The connection speed was OK, without being remarkable. I’m spoiled by having 4G on all my devices, and the hub is restricted to 3G speeds – something I could distinctly feel on occasion. But on the coastway to London route I used the hub the most, I was able to get a reliable connection for most of the journey, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Well, until it all stopped working, that is.

One man’s insatiable appetite for data

Perhaps I should have restricted my use of the hub to my iPad – but no, I couldn’t resist using it to get my laptop online on my commutes into London (1¼ hours either way – but I normally get a table, so can get loads of work done.) And so I killed the 1GB allowance – in a week. It’s easy to forget how fast laptops can eat data, and that’s exactly what I did. Idiotically, I didn’t realise that the promised “massive” 12Gb of data allowance meant 1Gb per month, and that was that.

And I have to confess that I haven’t rushed to top it up, either. Once you move off contract, the data rates are actually pretty spicy. Certainly enough that I held back from buying more data that month, and slunk back to tethering from my phone, sucking up the battery hit, but enjoying the 4G speeds again.

Do I miss it? Yes. It was nice being able to just click the hotspot on and have working WiFi anywhere. Will I stay with the hub? No – not this one. If I’m going to pay for broadband like this, I’ll certainly go for 4G. 3G is yesterday’s tech, and access speed is important enough to me that I’ll pay a little more for it.


  1. Skip the Huawei E5330. Get the 4G capable E5573.
  2. Buy a more generous data plan if you plan on working with your laptop as well as your tablet.
  3. Actually, maybe the SIM-enabled iPad isn’t worth the money after all…

Three small whiskies

And now for a brief Sunday diversion from the normal topic of this blog. I’d like to talk for a moment about whisky (although one could argue that whisky and journalism have often been closely linked…)

Some months back a jokey comment about heading out for a bottle of whisky to drown my frustrations was picked up by the team that manage the Grant’s Whisky twitter account. A little gentle leg-pulling by myself and Suw, amongst others (Twitter’s lousy search and my worse memory is making it hard for me to track down exactly who) actually led to Rebecca from the @grantswhisky team sending us all some miniatures of their products. I’ve finally got around to drinking all three, and these are my thoughts:

Grant’s Sherry Cask – the idea behind this (and the next) whisky is to age the spirit in a cask formerly used for sherry, imparting different flavours to the drink. And, in this case, the result is something a little warmer and smoother than a traditional Scotch. And, honestly, this didn’t grab me. It reminded me a little of drinking an Irish whiskey (triple distilled against Scotch’s twice), and I think I’d rather do that that drink this.

Grant’s Ale Cask – Now this was rather more up my street. The Ale cask has given a lovely creamy texture to the whisky that made me think of autumn evenings. An enjoyable, drinking whisky that I’ll be getting a bottle of once the summer is done. Something to look forward to after a walk in the woods…

Grant’s Family Reserve – If I’d drunk this on its own, I’d have really enjoyed it. I made the mistake of drinking it too close on the heels of the Ale Cask, though. They share too many notes to avoid making a comparison rather that treating the Family Reserve on its own merits. It’s less challenging to the palate that the Ale Cask, and that made it seem slightly insipid to me, but then I’ve always like my whiskies full of character and punch. I’d happily drink this, but I’d be secretly lusting after the Ale Cask.

Rather ironically, though, I wouldn’t count any of these three whiskies as the sort you’d use to drown your sorrows in. Far better to just let your sorrows drift away on an Ale Cask-aged haze…

Alex Parks: Looking for WaterAbout two years ago, the BBC was running its own version of Pop Idol called Fame Academy. The last series produced the only reality TV talent show winner that I’ve had any interest in whatsoever: Alex Parks. There was something about this feisty Cornish lesbian that you just couldn’t help but like. Indeed, my entire family were rather taken with her.

And then?

And then, things went a little pear-shaped. The record company rushed out an ill-advised album of covers and then Alex disappeared from sight.

Now, she’s back, with a new single of original material. And it’s rather good. The first track is an OK pop-ish number, but it’s the second track, Near Death Experience, that really brings home the bacon. It’s a great rock number that’s well worth the pennies to download it.

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It looks like the London Metroblogging site has a new competitor, Londonist. Like its competitor, it’s one of a group of city sites, which have a US-bias. And, like its competitor, it has got off to a less than promising start. It feels like it’s trying to be something like the opening pages of Time Out, with a mix of news and updates about local cultural events. Of the posts on the front page, only this one was of any interest. The rest, well, they felt like they were written for people who don’t live here – and maybe they are. It’s impossible to tell, because the link to the about page is broken,

As for the London Metblog, the quality of posts seems to be going up. I’m enjoying Bignoseduglyguy‘s stuff in particular. However, at least one of the contributors is an American, which seems to fly in the face of what they are attempting. Still, it’s a better read now than it was a few months ago, and that’s a good thing.

It’s been something of a movie weekend. After a couple of disappointments recently – we must be the only people who enjoyed the Spider-Man sequel less than the original and King Arthur was decidedly average – I’m happy to report that we were delighted both times.

On Friday night One Woman took ourselves off to see The Bourne Supremacy, which was great fun. The film sucked us both in and didn’t let us go until we emerged into the Docklands night a couple of hours later. It’s a really relentless watch, with the story barely pausing from the moment it gets underway. Great stuff. I really hope they go on and do the third books as well.

The only complaint I have about the evening was the feeling in the cinema. Normally, we go to the UCI Filmworks out on the Greenwich peninsula, but I fancies having a drink, so we went to the UGC West India Quay. My, but the people there were stressed. There was an edgy tension about the crown that made queuing at the concessions stand and waiting for the film to start positively unpleasant. I don’t think we’ll go there on a Friday night again.

On Saturday we treated ourselves to the 2 DVD edition of Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World. Over two hours of 19th Century seagoing glory. Barely a hint of land. BArely any women, and certainly no romance. A barrel-chested English hero with a passion for the sea and a love of classical music. How could I not enjoy it?

And they did it without Americanizing it. Will wonders never cease?

I’m just back from Blackheath Halls, where we saw the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. The orchestra is just what it sounds like: eight people with ukuleles of various sizes (although the big, bass uke looked suspiciously like a guitar to me….), doing what amounted to musical comedy by covering various songs with their fine little instruments.

It strikes me again and again just how skilled musicians have to be before they can perform really good musical comedy. There was one marvellous moment during the encore where all eight members of the orchestra were singing or playing a different song. Wow. That’s not easy to do.

Oh, and it’ll be a long, long time before I forget the Tony Bennett-style rendition of Wuthering Heights. If you get the chance to catch these guys, do so.

In my first few years in London, back in the late 80s and early 90s, I worked as reviews editor on my student rag. I’d spend Monday and Tuesday mornings in small screening rooms around Wardour Street watching that Friday’s film releases and my evenings in theatres, on the press nights. Over that two year period, I saw an incredible amount of films and plays. My knowledge of both forms of drama increased exponentially and my skill as a reviewer increased in direct proportion. I became painfully aware that often I was sharing the screening with people who had been doing the job for decades, and whose depth of understanding was much greater than mine.

That depth of experience is the first thing that will earn you respect as a reviewer and grant you the right to have your opinion considered seriously. If you’re just bashing out a review of the second game you’ve bought this year, frankly your opinion doesn’t count for much. It has a worth value of one: yourself.

Beyond that, the quality of the review itself makes a huge difference to the degree of respect it should be awarded. What makes a good review? Well, for one thing, the ability to write well. Language is all about taking the ideas in your head and placing them in another person’s head. Good writers are particularly skilled in doing that, crafting words that not only communicate the information, but do it in a way that makes it interesting and even entertaining. The review must also communicate the content of the product in a way that gives the reader a clear indication of what to expect from it. Finally, it must state an opinion as the the quality of the product, giving clear reasons for that opinion. I emphasise that last clause because a really well-written review can make you want to buy a product even if the reviewer hated it, as long as she has clearly communicated her reasons for disliking it. It may well be that the very things she disliked are the sort of qualities you like in a product.

The truth is that most internet reviews fail on all three bases. They are rarely more than adequately written, usually focus on only the aspects of the product that the reviewer cares about and express an opinion without a clear exposition of the reasons for it.

What’s more, most internet reviewers lack any depth of experience in the gaming field. They buy an play a narrow subset of the available games, and so their reviews pretty much come down to “is this the sort of thing I like or not?” That’s not a review: that’s a personal opinion. Again, it’s only valid for a value of one.
Woe betide anyone who dares question an internet reviewer’s opinion, though. The screeching howler moneys gather around their wounded brother, driving off the creator who dared question their precious opinion. The pack stands together, defending their right to have their opinion respected without earning the right to have it respected. “It’s my opinion,” the howl. “It’s can’t be wrong.” Sure, it’s not wrong. Ignorant, maybe. Wildly inaccurate, ill-informed and biased, perhaps, but not wrong. It’s their opinion, you see, so it’s right. The internet is clearly not a place for humility or even debate.

OK, I’m exaggerating a little. There are some thoughtful reviewers out there and some good debate to be had.

So, why don’t creators working in the RPG field just ignore these internet reviews? Why pay attention to the cage full of screeching howler monkeys? Simple: there’s no alternative. The roleplaying industry lacks any serious attempt to review RPGs well. The only major example I can think of is Ken Hite’s Out Of The Box. Ken’s reviews are always well written, but he only covers a small cross-section of the market and has some very marked preferences in the way he reviews. Beyond that? RPGNet suffers from the screeching howler monkey syndrome to excess. I’m struggling to think of any other serious source of game criticism beyond that.

This is the sole reason why internet reviews matter. People seek guidance on what they should buy, because there’s incredible choice out there and only so much disposable income in our pockets. In the absence of a core of good, respected, regular reviewers, they have to turn to the screeching howler monkeys of the internet, screaming their low value opinions into the digital world in the hope of drawing attention to themselves as much as to the product.

Some years ago, a fictitious woman called Lea Crowe (the name was actually an assumed identity for a man), called for a body of criticism in the literary sense for RPGs, a development of a vocabulary for understanding and dissection RPGs to understand what makes them worthy or not. The need now is even more pressing: a single source of good, edited, commissioned reviews run by skilled people and provided by a team of experienced gamers and writers. Until that develops, the screeching howler monkeys will reign supreme. Good products are going to be unfairly devalued in the eyes of the consumers and bad ones promoted simply because they happen to be a screeching howler monkey’s gaming fetish. This situation is bad for the industry, bad for the creators and, most of all, bad for the consumers. Not everything is better with a monkey.

Over in LiveJournal Land, several of us are keeping journals of what we read through 2003. I’m going to push that a little bit further here by shoving up media reviews as I go. I used to do film and theatre reviewing for my student newspaper and it’ll be nice to get back into the swing of it. (Note that I use the word “reviewing” and not “criticism”. I know where the boundaries of the two lie, and I’m not aspiring to the latter just yet.

Alias vol. 2: Come Home
Brian Michael Bendis seems to be working from an interesting thesis in Alias, which has nothing to do with the TV series of the same name. He postulates that in the Marvel Universe there are superheroes, who are prone to being sucked into Secret Wars, dropped into the Negative Zone and battling strangely dressed foes above the streets of New York. Then there’s pretty much everyone else, who watches that shit on their TV or reads about it in their papers. Bendis adds a third layer, that sits between the two. People with super powers, but who have never really made it into the superhero category or, if they did, didn’t last very long. Now they live in the real world again, with occasional periods of overlap with the world of the superheroes. In a sense, the book is the spiritual successor of Kurk Busiek’s Marvels.
The heroine of Alias is Jessica Jones, a reformed superhero who now eeks out a living as a rather seedy private eye. Come Home collects the third arc of the comic book, in which Jessica is hired to find a girl who has gone missing is a small town. The previous two arcs dealt with what happens when the real world impacts on the superheroic, and what happens when someone from the real world gets obsessed by super-powered characters. This story develops the theme by looking at how living in the Marvel Universe affects people living far, far away from the centre of the action.
As ever, Bendis’s strength lies in his dialogue. He is one of the few writers in comics today who can make two ordinary people standing still and talking to each other riveting, and he is ably supported by Michael Gaydos, whose scratchy pencils give a grimy, harsh edge to the proceeds yet convey a wonderful range of facial expression. These two talents are well used in this detective tale set in small-town America.
Essentially, if you like the idea of a tale of very real, very ordinary people set in and around the madness of the Marvel milieu, with a harsh, gritty edge, you’ll love this. Most of the drama derives from normal human relationships and the inevitable problems that occur. It’s an exploration of love, bigotry and hope and has the finest dating scene published in recent comics history, only a handful of pages after a really nasty one-night stand.
Bendis is doing something really uninteresting and different with an established comics universe and I really can’t praise this book enough.

X-Force: Famous, Mutant and Mortal
Like the Alias book, this recreation of X-Force is doing something very different within the established confines of the Marvel Universe. More of that in a moment. First, I’d like to coo over the presentation of this wonderful hardback book. I admit it:; I’m a complete bibliophile and the hardback collections that Marvel publishes are things of beauty. The printing makes both art and colouring shine and the extra features make what’s already a good-value package even better. Mmmmm.
Milligan and Allred aim for stylised satire rather than the gritty realism of Bendis and Gaydos, giving us a tale of a celebrity mutant team whose wealth and fame is only marred by their brutally short life expectancy. In short, this is pretty much what a mutant super-team would probably end up as in the real world. Their missions are stage-managed for the camera, their exploits ruthlessly merchandised and their every move watched in fascination by the mass media.
It’s clear that the authors are having a vest amount of fun with this book, taking pot shots at both the conventions of comics in general and the X-books in particular, as well as our media-obsessed culture. Plotlines play out with unexpected, cynical yet utterly convincing outcomes and characters perish with frightening frequency. In short, it takes the piss.
And then, all of a sudden, it sneaks up behind you and makes you care. By the end of this collection, you’re starting to sympathise with these shallow, fame-obsessed characters. The disposable (literally) caricatures of the early chapters are replaced by characters we come to care about and understand, without ever losing the biting edge of the satire. It’s a real page-turner this one, and only the necessity to get some sleep before work stopped me from reading the whole damn couple of hundred pages in one sitting.
Allred’s art takes some getting used to, with its mix of retro 60s poses and modern minimalism. However, it does grow on you to the point where a single fill-in artist for a chapter seems to stick out like a sore thumb. Somehow the style of art matches the style of storytelling perfectly. Allred does a particularly disturbing set of intestines, for a start.
If you’ve never read an X-book in your life, then read this. It makes Grant Morrison’s New X-Men look like late 90s Scott Lobell work.