Cocoon: Smart Home Security Camera – Review

It’s been a while, but the Cocoon: Smart Home Security Camera review is a bit of a techy one so I’m handing over to Dave:

I’m very home security conscious.  I go round every night making sure that all the doors are locked and windows are shut properly.  When I’m away I worry that Colette will forget these things and we’ll be burgled.  I have to fight the urge to text her and ask every single time I’m away.  No joke.  I’m also interested in tech.  No joke.  So when the chance came to review a tech based home security product I was all too keen to get involved.

The Cocoon smart home security camera is a tennis ball sized camera that sits in one corner of your house and with the hope of providing you with peace of mind when you’re out.  The camera connects to your WiFi network and you can interact with it via an app.  The app lets you watch what the camera can see at any point just by opening it.  The app also lets you set up profiles for anyone who has a smart phone and will be in your house regularly.  As people with profiles leave your house the camera knows, because they’re no longer connected to the WiFi, so it arms itself.  If the camera detects something while you’re out then you get a notification and you can watch a video of your house to see if you should be bothered.  Pretty good so far.

Cocoon Home Security Camera

You might think one camera can only provide you with protection for one or two rooms of your house depending on how you position it.  To get round this the Cocoon smart camera uses ‘subsound’ technology.  What this means in essence, I think, is the camera listens to your house and analyses the sounds.  If it hears something out of the ordinary then it lets you know and you can decide whether to set the alarm off or not.

Setting up the camera through the app is painless.  Create an account.  Add WiFi password.  Add other members of family with phones and you’re away.  As this is a ‘smart’ device it tells you that in the first few weeks you will get false alarms.  These are a part of the learning process.  You telling the camera that what it heard is fine allows the camera to adjust itself to the unique noises of your home.  And false alarms you will get.  When one of these comes in you have the choice to watch the video its recording.  There’s two options then, tell Cocoon everything is alright or sound an alarm.  If you sound the alarm it’s pretty loud.  I’m quite confident that if anyone was in your house and you set this off they’d shift pretty quickly (that sentence also works if you remove the ‘f’ from ‘shift’).

Cocoon camera app

A problem we both encountered with this system is that showing a video feed requires a decent internet connection.  When I’m at work the reception can be a bit hit and miss.  Sometimes I’d get a notification and try to watch the video.  It would buffer for a minute until the video ended, then the notification would disappear.  You can’t go back and re-watch it after the fact to train it when you’ve got a better connection.  While it’s buffering you still have the option to tell Cocoon everything is alright, or set off the alarm, but if you can’t watch the video then it seems a little pointless.  As it won’t be learning correctly and you don’t actually know if everything is alright.

We’ve been using the Cocoon for about eight weeks now and here are my thoughts.  In practice our Cocoon gave us false alarms all the time.  It did get better after the first few days but goes through phases of constant false alarms which we had expected would have passed by now.  I had to switch my phone to silent while in work because I was consistently getting notifications, which other people in my office were commenting on.  While away for the weekend both Colette and I ‘disarmed’ the camera remotely, using the app, to stop the constant notifications which of course defeats the object.  The camera forgot who I was meaning that I would set it off whilst in the house on my own because Colette had gone out so the camera had ‘armed’ itself. Whilst doing DIY I could stop and watch little videos of myself sawing or painting while the Cocoon panicked that I was an intruder.  To combat this I reset the camera, I reset the app, I re-did my profile and reconnected to the camera.  Each time the camera would forget me again, I don’t know why. The camera never forgot Colette though – maybe she’s more memorable than me? I don’t know.

The idea for the Cocoon smart security camera is good.  It looks good, it’s unobtrusive (so I don’t think you’d necessarily notice it if you were breaking into someone’s house), the set up is easy and the app works well, when you’ve got a decent internet connection.  The video quality is good, which would aid in the identification of any robber who was caught by the camera, and as I said if you put that alarm on then it is loud.  The only thing which doesn’t seem to work is the ‘smart’ part of the camera.  Ours learned but not to the extent we had hoped and returned false alarm after false alarm over the whole eight weeks – perhaps we just live in a really noisy area?  It can be pretty frustrating having to take your phone out of your pocket for the fiftieth time to tell Cocoon that everything was alright.  And for us that’s the deal breaker  – whilst we love the idea of being able to see what’s going on in the house when we’re not there, the constant false alarms are just too much for us.  I’d be interested in seeing the next version of this product to see if it actually learns. If it does then we’ll be interested.

So all in, the Cocoon smart home security camera is a great idea, but we just haven’t been able to trust it and rather than thinking “Oh heck what’s going on in the house” it has tended to be more of a “God there’s another Cocoon notification, turn the damn thing off.”  For us I can see the Cocoon being really handy as the kids get older and we want to know that perhaps they’ve got home from school ok – but I would definitely do this by just watching the app rather than having the Cocoon armed and notifying me! 

*We received the Cocoon smart home security camera free of charge for the purpose of review however all thoughts and opinions remain our own*

*Read more reviews here*

Anki Overdrive Starter Kit – Review

I’m handing over to Dave for this review – car racing and techy toys are very much up his street so he was almost as excited about the Anki Overdrive Starter Kit as Ben: 

Anki Overdrive, for anyone not familiar, is a cross between Scalextric and a mobile phone racing game.  When I opened the Anki Overdrive Starter Kit I was greeted by two cars, a charging station, some track risers and ten pieces of track (6 bends and 4 straight pieces).  You may have noticed that I’ve not mentioned any means of controlling your cars but that’s what brings this toy into the modern era and I’ll explain more about that in a minute.  The track pieces use magnets to hold themselves together, making it very easy and convenient to try different track shapes, a number of which are suggested on the box.  After you’ve put your track together and charged your cars you need to download an app to your phone or tablet (Android or iOS) which will let you control your cars and navigate the game generally.  Once you’ve downloaded the app and created a profile you are asked to put the cars on the track.  The cars then drive around the track to ‘scan’ it.  A diagram of your chosen track shape is drawn on the screen of your device as the cars ‘scan’ it.  You can then race.  Either against a friend or a computer opponent.  You control the speed of your car via  your phone’s screen to race around the track, and you tilt your phone left or right to change lanes as you race.  Necessary for overtaking.  More importantly, the phone gives you control over one more thing which sets this apart from games of old . . . the weapons!  Yes that’s right… Weapons.  As you’re racing around the track you can blast your opponent to knock them out of action for a few seconds which can really change the shape of a race.

Controlling the Anki Overdrive Starter kit with an android mobile phone

Each car has it’s own strengths and weaknesses.  In their natural state, one is quicker while the other has more firepower.  Of course this keeps things interesting.  If it’s necessary there is an option to ‘balance’ the characteristics of the cars for a more even competition.  As you race you accrue gold coins which you can use to buy upgrades for your car in the shop through the app.  These vary from car to car but follow the usual themes of bulking up your firepower, your weapons range or the ability of your car to take damage before it is out of action ‘briefly’.  Ben loves the upgrades and spends ages reading through all the options before buying his additions.

Anki Overdrive Starter Kit - car racing track

Boys racing the Anki Overdrive Starter Kit

Different game modes are available after you’ve played a few games against the computer and unlocked them.  The interesting thing is that when you are playing against the computer you still have both cars on the track which makes the racing feel more real than just playing on your phone.  The game mode that Ben and I play the most was ‘Battle’.  In this game you are both racing around the track but the number of laps you do makes no difference.  The aim, unsurprisingly, is to knock out your opponent.  You fire your weapons through your phone.  In reality, a light flashes on your car, but if you’re close enough to your opponent then he takes some damage and his phone will vibrate to let him know.  After as while you can get an upgrade which allows you to fire weapons behind you which keeps the racing interesting.

If you’re feeling flush you can add to your track with more bits of track or extra cars (up to four cars can race at once to keep you and your friends/kids happy). There’s sections of track available which give you banked turns or jumps and even collisions!  There are also ‘Super Trucks‘ which you can add to your set which unlock extra game modes and look really cool but you could easily spend quite a bit of money doing this.

Anki Overdrive Starter Kit

The only things I can fault with the Anki Overdrive Starter Kit is that the racing is a little rudimentary.  I found I could keep the car at full throttle throughout the track without any real problems.  Although Ben managed to spin off the track any number of times so maybe I’m just a natural! I doubt it though. If you were a fan of the physical throttle on a Scalextric set then you won’t be impressed with the controls.

The kids really enjoyed the game and it was something I was happy to play with for more than an hour.  So if you’re looking for a racing experience for the family/kids which feels more real than a mobile phone game then it might be worth a look see.

*We were sent the Anki Overdrive Starter Kit free of charge for the purposes of review however all thoughts and opinions remain our own.  Post contains affiliate links.* 

*Read more reviews here*

Chill Factore – The Snow Park

Last weekend we took ourselves off on a bit of an exciting adventure to Chill Factore, our local indoor snow destination!  As Amy and I watched the fun from the warmth of the Mont Blanc Cafe (and tried to take photos for you) I’m handing over to Dave for a full write up of the frosty fun!

Chill Factore - Ready to go play!

We love a good adventure here.  The clue’s in the name really!  So we were thrilled to be invited to The Snow Park at Chill Factore near the Trafford Centre in Manchester.  If you haven’t heard of Chill Factore it boasts the UK’s longest indoor ski slope at 180m of real snow where you can learn to ski or snow board.  Today however we were sliding around in a variety of fashions on the kids’ Snow Park.

Because of the age restrictions on The Snow Park, Amy wasn’t able to take part and we decided that rather than playing in Mini Mooseland on her own, she would stay with Colette whilst I took the big two.  Luckily I was joined by Chris from Team Custard to help.  Chris is no stranger to snowy adventures and he and Ben have a growing bromance so he was the perfect choice.  Aunty Custard (Kirsty) from Team Custard joined Colette in keeping Amy occupied while the big kids (Chris and I are definitely included in that statement) played in the snow.

On offer in The Snow Park are Downhill Donuts, Luge Slip ‘N’ Slide, Sledge ‘O’ Mania and the Snow Luge – it’s worth checking the age restrictions on each of these before you book.

Once you’ve paid for your adventure at Chill Factore you need your cold weather clothing.  Waterproofs are recommended as well as hats and gloves.  Luckily if you haven’t got such gear yourself you can hire waterproofs and buy gloves right there.  (Helmets and snow boots are provided.)  It’s good gear too.  The boots, trousers and coats me and the kids got were all really well fitting and comfy and kept us warm throughout.  Chris had his own gear, as you can see in the pictures, and very colourful it was too!  Very helpful for spotting him across the piste!

You book your time in the Snow Park in hour long blocks, which sounds like a long time but it flew by for us.  It’s worth mentioning that you really need to get to Chill Factore a good while before your session starts to give you time to get changed and prepared – getting those snow boots on can be quite time consuming!  Once you get inside the snow area a guide explains the rules of the Snow Park and what the various rides are and how to use them.  Once that’s done you’re unleashed!  We went straight for the Downhill Donuts first off.  To get to these you have to ride a travelator up the slope to the top before choosing your track back down.  The travelator takes a second to get used to, and getting off at the top was a little tricky for the kids in the beginning but they soon got the hang of it.  At the top of the slope there are two bumpy tracks and one which is a straight, smooth track.  This may sound boring but the operator at the top spins you round at quite a rate.

Chill Factore - Travelator

Chloe chose a bumpy track straight from the off while Ben went for the spinny one.  I thought Chloe might not enjoy the bumpy track as she can be a bit nervous but she loved it and Ben, as predicted, enjoyed everything the Snow Park could throw at him.  Even for big kids like Chris and I the donuts were good fun, and you do feel a bit dizzy once you reach the bottom of the spinny track.

Chill Factore - Little girl on donuts

We tried the Luge Slip ‘N’ Slide next.  To use those you pick up a tray at the bottom of the slope and walk it up to the top.  There are two Luge tracks to choose from.  One is for up-to sixteen year olds and the other is for six years and up.  Chloe stuck to the smaller Luge track and was very happy with it.  Ben used both but in the end I think he preferred the smaller Luge.  Chris and I were both restricted to the larger Luge.  It was very good though.  Plenty of speed with some good turns and a few drops which did a good job of stretching my spine out!  Both Ben and Chloe were smiling when they reached the bottom which is the whole point.

Chill Factore - small boy on Luge

Chill Factore - tall man on Luge

Chill Factore - Man on Luge

Lastly we tried the sledging.  Reluctantly I missed my turn so I could film from the bottom of the slope.  Chris took the two of them up to the top with their sledges (more trudging) and Ben and Chlo had a race.  Ben is very keen to point out that he won however, Chloe did travel further down the slope so I think they were both winners.  Chris and I didn’t attempt the sledging as the sledges were quite small, and I could well imagine myself getting thrown off a sledge which was approximately the same size as my backside!

Chill Factore - sledge race

Chill Factore - Sledging

So with everything tried the kids chose to go on the Donuts a few more times.  Trying out the different tracks over and over.  We all did the Luge again a few times and then there was just enough time for the kids to have one last go on the sledges before our time was up.  It really did fly by but Chloe was quite tired by the end of the session so I think it was probably just long enough!

Once we’d got the snow gear off and met up with Colette, Amy and Kirsty we went next door for Pizza at ‘Pizza della Piste’.  A solid ending to a fun morning out.  Anything that ends with pizza is a win in my book.  We managed to feed and water four adults and three kids for £60 which was fantastic value, especially considering there was pizza leftover to take home!

Ben and Chloe have been skiing once before and they both mentioned that they’d like to do it again while we were eating afterwards.  I think they’re about ready and judging by their Snow Park adventure I imagine they’d take to it very well.

*We were invited to try out the Snow Park and Pizza de la Piste free of charge for the purposes of review however all thoughts and opinions remain our own*

JORD Wooden Watch – Review

Happy child and Jord watch

The other day we got a large cube shaped package delivered to our house.  This in itself is nothing new.  Our house is a miniature Parcel Force depot most days of the week!  On this occasion though the package felt….. interesting.  I was intrigued.  When Colette opened the package it revealed a large wooden box.  Even more intriguing!  Inside the box was a watch!  A blinking wooden watch!  Well, it wasn’t literally blinking, but Colette won’t let me swear on here so I’m sticking with blinking as an adjective!  A wooden watch is something you don’t see every day.  I have never seen one.  It looks cool.

Colette had ordered a unisex JORD Frankie series watch for herself but as luck would have it, the face was a bit big for her wrist (as I kept telling her!) meaning she eventually, and grudgingly, passed it to me.  Hand-me-downs are sometimes ace!  Now as Colette had ordered it for herself she’d ordered the Dark Sandalwood & Smoke colour way.  This has the potential to look a bit girly on a big burly man’s wrist, but luckily I’m in touch with my feminine side and I can rock a bit of rose gold.  It matches my hair.  And before you say ‘What’s left of it Dave!’ I mean my beard!

Jord Watch - Smoke and Sandalwood

Now you can order your watch pre-adjusted to fit, however even though Colette used the guide to decide what size she needed, when it arrived it was very loose on her wrist and it was even a bit big when I got it.  I removed one of the links and now it fits well.  Not perfectly.  My wrist is unfortunately between links which means it is a little loose but it’s always better to be a little bigger than smaller.

The JORD Frankie watch has a large face which is very much the fashion nowadays.  It’s not an overly fussy face.  There’s no extra dials to complicate the aesthetic.  There’s just the one knob on the side to set the time.  The face is gleaming and polished like a mirror meaning you can see the reflection of the hands moving, and the raised roman numerals around the outside of the face, in the lip on the inside of the face.  This is something which I’m not sure anyone else would care about, but I really liked it and spent at least five minutes staring at the reflections from different angles.  Maybe it was more like ten minutes.  I should have timed myself really.  The equipment was right there.

Jord Watch on Daddy's wrist

As I mentioned before, the colour way that Colette ordered has rose gold detailing, but against the dark wood of the strap and body of the watch I think the details look a bit copperish (much like me) and the contrast really makes the face stand out.  It looks striking.  No bad thing.  So the looks are a win for me.  The oddity of it being made from wood doesn’t end with the aesthetic though.  The other thing you will notice is it’s astoundingly light!  If you’re used to metal watches, as I am, then this will take a little while to become the norm but it does.

JORD provide you with care instructions.  The watch is splash proof but not waterproof and you have to be careful of sudden changes in temperature as this can make the wood swell or contract.  Possibly damaging the wood or the mechanisms.  I don’t envisage the temperature changes being much of a problem in this country but if you lived somewhere really cold then maybe this wouldn’t be the greatest.  The non-waterproofing will have to be managed as rain is a constant threat living in Manchester.  It’s recommended that you treat the wooden parts every six months with a finishing oil.

Happy child and Jord watch

So I’ve got a handsome timepiece but a slightly miffed missus.  At least she gets to tell people she got it for me, which means she’s got good taste.  We’re both winners really.

If you love Dave’s watch as much as he does, you can enter to win $100 gift code to spend with JORD (the code will expire on 30/04/2017 so don’t spend too long choosing if you win!)

*We were sent the JORD watch free of charge for the purpose of review.  All thoughts and opinions are Dave’s own*

Luxury Wooden Watch

*Read more reviews here*

Puddle Ducks with Dad – Word from the Mr

Amy has been swimming with Puddle Ducks for quite some time and Colette tells me that she’s really been making progress.  I’ve taken her swimming twice before this and they were good but not great.  The first time I went I felt a bit out of my depth (metaphorically not physically, the pool is not that deep!).  There’s quite a bit going on in the lessons, what with all the songs to learn and me trying to understand exactly what I’m supposed to be doing during all the games and trying to get the actions right.  The first time I took Amy swimming it was quite early in her lessons and she was still a bit nervous.  This nervousness wasn’t helped by me, mistakenly dunking her a bit further under the water than she was comfortable with without giving her the proper signal!  She was fine, but she was noticeably more clingy after that incident.  As you would be if a loved one had tried to drown you!

Daddy & Amy in the swimming pool with Puddle Ducks - toddler swimming lessons

Anyway the second time I took her was far better, on my part, but unfortunately Amy was a bit under the weather at the time and possibly still hadn’t forgiven me for the ‘incident’.  So she was still very clingy and not nearly as brave and adventurous as I’d been told she usually was.

Recently Amy has missed a few lessons through illness and our, at times, frantically busy schedules.  Luckily Puddle Ducks provide you with the opportunity to book ‘Catch up lessons’ if there’s a space in another session at a time and place convenient to you!  As there were a few of these ‘Catch up lessons’ to be had and the only convenient times available were at the weekend, Colette and I decided it would be a good thing if I took Amy and we had a bit of “Bo and Bear” time.

We’ve noticed that Amy has been very much a ‘Mummy’s girl’ of late.  Sometimes to the point of her being hysterical if Colette has gone out and she’s left with me.  I think this is fairly normal given how much time that Amy spends with Colette.  More time than Ben or Chloe had ever spent with Colette by this point in their lives anyway.  I can remember going through a similar phase when I was very young and annoying my Mum something fierce.  So as an antidote to this we thought more time spent with just Amy and I would be a good thing.

The ‘Catch up lessons’ we’ve been going to are at the Aqua Nurture site in Hyde, Manchester.  This is an old pub which Gary and Suzanne have renovated and turned into a pub.  It’s a lovely place and a really good place to do Puddle Ducks lessons as you are in your own pool, not a sectioned off area of a larger pool, and as it’s designed for little ones the water is kept a bit warmer than a normal pool.  Temperature being something which Amy has struggled with in the past, she don’t like the cold much like her Mother!  As the lessons are in a different place, we are swimming with a different teacher than Amy’s usual one.  This is not a problem though as Sarah was Amy’s teacher when she first started swimming with Puddle Ducks so Amy’s always happy to see her.

The Puddle Ducks lessons are structured through a series of games that help Amy in becoming confident in the water and then help her to actually learn to swim.  Every game has a song that you sing to your ‘Little Dipper’, which is what they call swimmers of Amy’s age and ability, including a song about getting into the pool in a safe way.  When I first went with Amy I didn’t know any of the songs and felt a bit awkward, but I’m far more confident now and I don’t have to focus quite so acutely to make sure I’m not doing anything wrong.  This means I can actually enjoy the lessons now rather than concentrate on keeping up.

Amy has really come in on in the last four ‘catch-up’ lessons.  For the first ‘catch-up’ lesson Colette and the big two came to watch, and when we’d got out Colette was a bit miffed that Amy was not showing me all the things she could do.  The leap in Amy’s ability is, I think, in part because she’s grown in confidence that I know what I’m doing (partly true) but also because she’s just been showing me all the things she’s learnt over the past 8 months since I last took her swimming.  The difference is remarkable.  Yesterday Amy swam across the pool four times with the use of two woggles (thin cylindrical floats) under her arms without me touching the floats at all!  I was just showing her that my hands were there in case she needed me.  In our last lesson she swam on her back with me only holding her head very lightly.  She was doing all the work, kicking her legs the whole way.  It was wonderful to see.

The other major change I’ve noticed is during a game where Amy has to swim through a hoop while reaching for a single woggle.  The teacher takes Amy and holds her on one side of the hoop while I wait on the other side of the hoop with the woggle.  Amy is passed through the hoop and reaches for the woggle.  Depending on the confidence of your swimmer the teacher pushes them across the gap under the water or on top of the water.  Yesterday I left a really big gap between the teacher and me meaning that Amy had to reach for a long period of time and float without anyone touching her.  She did brilliantly and was smiling when she reached the woggle.  She’s so much more confident now.

The lessons are half an hour long which is just right for Amy I think.  Once the lesson is done we get changed and then go through to the cafe area.  The cafe at Aqua Nurture is lovely with a big window through into the pool area so you can watch the lessons while having a brew.  After the lessons me and Amy have taken to having a cake and a drink if we’ve earned it.  Unsurprisingly we always earn it!  Amy likes to play with the toys in the cafe section and look at the books provided before we set off home.

There’s still a few ‘catch-up’ lessons for Amy and I to do and I’m very much looking forward to them.  The more the merrier I say.  They’re good fun and they’re definitely lessening the ‘Mummy’s girl’ aspects Amy’s been showing.  Amy’s growing in confidence and ability and I’m loving seeing my little girl turning into a swimmer.

Daddy & Amy

*Amy swims with Puddle Ducks free of charge for the purposes of review.  All thoughts and opinions remain our own*

*Read more reviews here*

HP Instant Ink vs Epson Eco Tank . . . It’s War!

Side by side printer comparison

It’s tech review, it’s Dave:

We all know that everything is on-line nowadays.  It’s quick and convenient to do pretty much anything because it’s all there available for you on the internet.  Banking, booking hotels, shopping and all your accounts.  They’re all there at the click of a button or the tap of a screen.  The downside of this is that no one sends you anything through the post any more (or if they do they do it for an extra charge!).  All your statements are on-line and any tickets or gate passes you need are emailed to you.  That means you need a printer now more than ever before.

Of course there’s always one available at the local library, but good luck trying to find your library card at 16:30 on a Sunday afternoon when your flight leaves in two hours and you realise you haven’t printed your boarding passes yet!

In the past there were two different approaches to printers.  You either bought an expensive printer and got your ink cheap(ish) or you bought a cheap printer and paid through the nose for your ink.  Recently however the home printing paradigm has changed.  ‘Eco’ printers are all the rage.  These are printers where you refill the ink yourself from bottles to reduce waste.  Putting aside my scepticism about how much waste this actually saves (you’re still throwing away four plastic bottles every time you refill it after all) these printers work exactly as you’d expect but the cost is comparable with buying cartridges.  Approx £20 – £30 for each refill.  We had an Epson one for a long while that we got as a review and it did it’s job admirably.  It was quite an expensive one though.

HP have a different idea though.  They think refilling your own ink is for chumps and have created a printer that uses normal cartridges but through the magic of the internet means you never run out of ink! It’s called Instant Ink.  To try this idea out they sent us a new HP Instant Ink ready printer and an equivalent Epson eco-tank printer.  These are fairly cheap as printers go.  The HP one is £60 and the Epson is £100.  HP also set me up with a load of tests to put these printers through their paces. It’s like a science experiment!  So once I donned my white lab coat (I always keep one handy) I set about testing  these printers.

Side by side printer comparison

Getting Set Up

HP had suggested a variety of tests but the first one was setting them up. I started with the Epson EcoTank.  The box is well packed with sturdy foam.  The instructions were easy to follow and actually filling the ink tanks isn’t hard.  You take the bottle of ink and snap off the top, turn it over and squeeze it into the tank.  On the Magenta and Yellow inks things went smoothly.  However I did manage to get ink all over my hands with both the Cyan and Black inks.  It seemed as though there was more ink in these bottles which meant that as you got to the end of the bottle you were at the top of the tank.  Meaning you end up with ink in the tank touching the top of the bottle.  This then runs down the bottle and all over your hands as you finish your filling operations.  Gloves might be an idea if you ever try it.  It took me about 20 mins from opening the box to finishing the filling.  This included about 5 minutes hand scrubbing time!  Once you’ve done that you have to let the ink ‘charge’ which took about 15 mins.

Epson ink on hands

The Epson is a nice looking unit.  It’s all black shiny plastic.  I particularly liked the fact it has a transport lock which stops the ink from coming out of the tank during, you guessed it, transport.  Next you have to set it up on your network.  I struggled here.  The recommended way resulted in 20 mins of failure.  I swapped to WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup), it’s available on most newish routers and basically allows you to pair a device to your router with the touch of a button.  This worked immediately which was good as I wasn’t particularly looking forward to repacking the thing to send it back!  After you’re connected to the network it does a quick check for any firmware updates and installs them.  Finally you have the choice to install the additional software which allows you to scan and such.  Worth having in my opinon, so I installed that too.  In total set up took me over an hour including the messing around and hand cleaning, which isn’t great but you only have to do it once.

Epson Eco Tank L355

Next was the HP.  Again well packed with good instructions.  However with the HP you are instructed to turn it on far earlier in the set-up process than with the Epson.  This is because the HP comes with a small touch screen on the front.  This provides little animations of your next steps which was a help and is a nice touch.  As I mentioned above the HP uses cartridges so there’s no mess from pouring ink and there was no charging either.  In total it took me 16 minutes to set up the printer, including installing software and connecting to the network.  Once the printer is on and you’ve put some paper in it, it prints a test page of lines and characters.  This is then used to set up the alignment of the scanner.  Neat idea.  I particularly like the fact the paper is fed in from the front of the printer below where the printed sheets are dispensed. So you can get the unit right up to the wall.  There’s also a second tray for photo paper in 4 x 6″ size so you don’t have to change the paper to print a picture.  Handy.

HP Envy 5540 - HP Instant Ink

Print Quality

Onto the printing tests (If you can’t be bothered to read about the specifics of the tests then by all means jump ahead to the conclusion where I’ll sum it all up, but if you’d like to know all the details then please read on you curious critter you.)  The first was a quality test and involved printing a single page recipe, in both draft and normal quality on standard paper.  The HP was noticeably quicker to print and did so with a far higher quality.  The Epson showed banded lines across the picture on the recipe.  No such lines on the HP in either draft or normal quality.  I’m a suspicious chap so I wondered if the paper that HP had supplied was designed to work better with HP printers.  To test this supposition I got some of our really cheap paper and printed the same test on both printers.  Once again the HP reigned supreme as the Epson showed the banded lines across the page again.

Print quality test

The second quality test was on a longer eight page document.  A brochure for a very nice looking house this time.  Again printed in both draft and normal settings.  As before the HP was the quickest and printed at a far higher quality than the Epson.  There really isn’t much of a comparison to be made if I’m honest.  The draft quality on the HP is better than the normal quality on the Epson.  A thing to note is that the HP prints the last page of the document first.  Meaning when the document is finished printing it is in the correct order from the get go.  The Epson doesn’t do this which means you have to reorder the document once it’s finished.  It’s not the biggest issue in the world but if you were printing a very large document it means unnecessary work.

Speed Tests

Our third test is a speed test and the first time I got to see the printing of a photo.  The picture in question was a combination of six smaller pictures.  The printer quality was to be at the highest setting.  On the Epson, printing a picture on the premium paper means manually changing the paper and adjusting the paper guides.  On the HP you just have to change the paper drawer in software which is less of a faff.  The Epson took 74 seconds to print the picture.  Which isn’t the end of the world for the occasional picture. However there are some noticeable peculiarities in the finished article.  The highlights are really blown out giving an odd look to the pictures.  The picture of the baby on the bottom left looks positively demonic.  Not ideal for sending to proud Grandparents!  The HP on the other hand, took 47 seconds to print this picture on the highest quality setting, which is noticeably quicker.  The real story is the quality though.  This picture on the premium paper was excellent.  Nearly as good as a picture you’d get back from a professional printers.  Top notch.  As before there is no comparison in the quality stakes.

Photo printing comparison

Smudge Tests

Next in our suite of tests was a series of smudge tests.  The first was a dry smudge.  Here you print on standard paper in the normal quality setting, a picture of big blocky colours so you’re really putting some ink down, and as soon as it came out of the printer you try to rub it off with your fingers.  Long story short neither printer smudged at all.  Sounds like a draw to me.  The second was a wet smudge.  In this you print off another picture on the premium picture paper on the highest quality settings and then try and  smudge it with a wet tissue.  In this regards the Epson actually won.  With the ink on the Epson going nowhere while the blacks on the HP smudged quite readily.  If I’m honest I used a wet wipe instead of a wet tissue as they were to hand (they always are in our house) and I didn’t see it would make much difference but maybe it did?  Who knows.  Regardless it was the HP which smudged and the Epson wins one.  The next was the water test.  Similar to the last one but in this you actually spill/pour water onto the pic and ‘clean it up’ with a paper towel.  I actually used the specified equipment for this one.  Again the Epson didn’t smudge but the HP did.  Col has since spoken to someone from HP and they were very surprised that there printer failed these tests but they did so it’s in here!

Smudge test

Wet smudge test

Fade Tests

The last of my tests was a Fade test.  No the printers don’t do trendy men’s hair cuts!  (No I don’t know what he’s talking about either . . . ) Although that would be seriously cool.  In this you again print a good quality pic on the premium paper and then leave them on the window sill with half the pic covered with paper to see if it fades in direct sunlight.  I left ours for about 3 weeks as the sun can be a bit scarce in Manchester sometimes.  I promise that in that time there has been some sun.  After all that, neither had faded.  It was a bit of a let down really after waiting.  Another draw then.

The all important cost conversation

The last thing to talk about is costs.  As I said above the HP is nearly half the price of the Epson.  The only other variable you’ve got is your ink costs.  That’s where things get a little more complicated.  The cheapest I found the Epson ink for on-line was £19.  That’s for proper Epson ink.  You can find supposedly compatible inks a bit cheaper but that’s your call.  The official figures for page yield is 6500 pages per ink cartridge.  However I’d believe that more if the ink tanks in the Epson weren’t between a 1/6th and an 1/8th empty after the printing tests.  I haven’t printed a thousand pages here.  The pictures take plenty of ink but not a thousand pages worth.  So if you do the sums, 6500 x 4 = 26000 pages.  £19/26000 = 0.0073 pence per page.  Sounds amazing.  However with this, admittedly unusual printing load, the 22 pages I’ve printed have cost approx £2.37.  That’s 10.8 pence per page.  It still won’t break the bank but it’s not in the same realm as the official numbers.

With the HP you are offered subscription tiers.  The cheapest tier, and the one we will be using for this example, is £1.99 a month.  That gives you 50 printed pages per month.  Black and white or colour.  You are allowed roll over any unused pages from month to month into your allowance up to the amount you get per month.  So in this tier you’d be allowed to roll over 50 pages.  This would give you up to 650 pages a year for £23.88.  That’s 3.67 pence per page.  Which is a lot more than the official figures for the Epson, but a lot less than what my perceived usage is suggesting.  Of course that assumes you’re going to use your allowance in full for the year.  You may well not.  In which case your price per page will rise.  You can change your tier from month to month if you wish.  So if you knew you wanted to do a load of printing you could jump up a tier for a month then drop back down.  Unfortunately if you go over your allowance you have to pay extra at an inflated rate.  On this tier then the extra pages cost £1 per 15 pages, or 6.67 pence per page.  The next tier up is £3.49 per month and gets you 100 pages.  So you’d have to do some sums to work out if going over your allowance was more cost effective than jumping up a tier.

So, in my opinion the convenience you gain in not having to order ink you lose in having to track your usage to get the best deal.  Swings and roundabouts I’m afraid.

HP claim you make up to a 70% saving on ink using their Instant Ink service.  For the lowest tier it claims a£78 saving against standard sized HP cartridges.  I’ve found HP cartridges for the Envy 5540 online for £23.54 which is practically the cost of a years subscription.  So if you use more than one set of cartridges for 650 pages you’re making a saving.  I think it’s a fairly safe bet that if you use your allowance to the fullest you’ll be saving money.  What isn’t so certain is if, like us, you print infrequently you’d be better off just buying a cartridge when you needed one?  That’s a question I can’t answer now.  It needs a test of a far longer variety.


In terms of printing quality and speed the HP wins by a country mile.  It’s easier and quicker to set up plus you wont risk getting ink on your clothes, hands, face, furniture and possibly children while filling the tanks!  In my opinion it looks better sat in your house,the matt finish shows the dust less (A major plus in our house at the minute!), and it’s about the same size as the Epson.

The only place the Epson beat out the HP was in wet smudge tests, but given how poor the quality of pictures were on the Epson I wouldn’t keep them.  Smudge free or not!

For us, we’re going to be keeping the HP and using the lowest tier of the Instant Ink subscription for a year to see how it fares.  If we use more than one set of cartridges in a year then we’ll be winning.  It’s a long term science experiment in the hopes of money saving!  Right up my alley then.

*Read more reviews here*

The most you can spend on any child is time – Word from the Mr

Family walking through the woods

It’s been a little while since Dave has written a post for me but this is a big one and I won’t deny it made me cry the first time I read it . . . 

Col has been pecking my head to write a new post for the blog for quite some time now.  I shouldn’t complain.  It’s nice to be wanted and I quite enjoy seeing what falls out of my head when I get on a topic where I’ve got something to say.  Therein lies my problem.  I’ve been struggling to find a topic that I don’t write meaningless waffle about.

Anyway this topic has some weight for me, so it’s been nagging at me that I could write something real about this, and as it came up in conversation recently with some friends I thought I’d try to put some of my thoughts down.  Here goes…

I don’t know my Father.

I’ve met him.  Just not nearly enough for a human who provided half the genetic material that is me.  He and my Mum split up when I was very little, and although my Mum put in huge amounts of effort and made sure I saw his family loads during my childhood, he worked away and was very rarely there when I went to visit his side of the family.  So I had a great relationship with his parents, my Nan and Granddad, all my uncles and cousins, but not him.  I spoke to him on the phone occasionally and I saw him at scattered intervals but he has been absent throughout my life.

I’m not asking for sympathy and I’m definitely not suggesting I’m alone in this situation so please don’t get me wrong.  I mainly want to talk about how much that abandonment can and does affect you because it might not be apparent.  I’m pretty well adjusted, all things considered.  However, I undoubtedly have “Daddy issues”.  A phrase which makes me shudder to think about let alone type!  I haven’t always realised that this was the case though.  Throughout my teens, if you had asked me, I would have told you that I couldn’t have cared less about not seeing him.  It didn’t make me feel any less worthwhile or affect me in any way.  It wasn’t just empty bravado either.  I really believed that at the time.  It’s only looking back that I see it now.  Hindsight having such ocular accuracy as it does.

Family photo

I think what really nailed down that realisation for me was one Christmas when he rang me out of the blue because he “wanted to be a part of his grand kids’ lives”, not his son’s life I might add, his grand kids.  I found myself screaming down the phone at him because he wasn’t listening to me.  It didn’t help that I was half cut of course!  The topic certainly didn’t put me in the right frame of mind.  The point I’m trying to make is that at that point I was a fully grown adult who had his life together.  A happy family life with not a care in the world by most measures.  I wasn’t a child and I hadn’t been one for quite some time.  I’d spent that evening getting pleasantly potted in the pub with the in-laws, all geared up for Christmas and within five minutes I was reduced to screaming at a practical stranger because he asked me a question!  That is not my usual response to trouble and strife.  I am better than that.  Some scars run deep and never heal quite as much as you’d like.

It’s a well known phrase ‘You’ve got a face only a Mother could love’.  Not the nicest phrase I know.  I think this phrase is applicable for both your parents, even though it is usually reserved for the maternal side.  The point of it is that your parents should love you no matter what you look like, what you are.

But what if they don’t?  What does that say about you?  Are you in some way unlovable?  Not worth the effort?  I’m afraid to say that these things cross your mind from time to time.  If there’s anyone who can mess you up it’s your parents.  I’d like to point out again that I’m fine and that what I am describing is in no way the worst thing a parent can inflict upon you, but it’s still not great.

If you look at statistics for children who show serious behavioural problems, then aside those who have a diagnosed condition to account for their behavioural issues, the vast majority have fractured home lives.  That dynamic is so important to a child’s development.  Physical development, mental development, emotional growth and stability all start with a happy home life.  That’s not to say it’s the only the only place it can come from, but it helps. I think as parents that’s what you owe your kids. It doesn’t matter how much money you make, how many presents you give them or fancy places you take them. If your kids know they are loved and spend time with you then they’ll be alright because that’s what matters. Show them love and that they are worth your time.

Family in the woods

When I was quite young my Mum met a bloke who would go on to be a major influence in my life.  He was great to me.  I really learned a lot from him, and the effort he put into getting to know me and putting up with the resentful sod I was, really shows the character of him.  I’m ashamed to say that I did not repay that man with the respect and affection that he deserved.  For a large part of my formative years I really didn’t like him because he had the audacity to not be my Dad!  How dare he!  Coming over here making my Mum happy and putting up with her stroppy kid!  The cheek of it.  He was around throughout my early life until he regretfully passed away far too young.  I finally told him I loved him on his death bed and thanked him for everything he had done for me.  I’m so glad that I got to do that but it shouldn’t have only been on that one occasion.

As I look back now I realise that even if my Father had made the effort I don’t think he’d have been a good Dad.  I can’t see us playing football or him helping me my with my homework.  I’ve spoken to him as an adult and I don’t see a great role model, but then again whenever I have spoken to him it has always been through a fog of alcohol at family funerals or weddings which is the only time our paths cross.

In a way the scariest thing for me is that I can see how this situation would arise. I’m pretty terrible at keeping in touch with friends and family. People I genuinely love and care about have drifted out of my life because I don’t pick up the phone. Because it’s easier to not ring or go and see them. Relationships are living things. If you don’t care for them they die.  So I can see that it’d be easy to not ring tonight because you are tired, or you haven’t got anything to talk about.  Then once you’ve done that a few times you feel like it’s been too long to just ring up for a chat.  Once that happens then when/if you do eventually ring it’s awkward because you haven’t spoken in so long. It gets harder to ring or see them and easier to leave it till another time.  That’s the very definition of a downward spiral.  It’s harder to act and easier to leave until things are too far gone.

I knew from very early on that I wanted kids.  I wanted to be a Dad.  I also knew that I would never ever leave my kids.  I am not ever going to be someone who only sees their kids on the weekend.  That’s not enough.  I need to be a part of my kids’ lives.  If I’m going to mess them up it’s going to be from being around them and teaching them my bad habits rather than from being absent.

So the crux of the matter for me, and what I wanted to write this post for, is to say if you are in the horrible situation where you don’t live with your kids then make that effort.  If you make plans, then turn up.  Be there as much as you physically can.  Call them.  Send birthday cards.  Do everything you can to let them know that they matter because that’s what counts.  That they know they are loved and they have people who want to be part of their lives.  Even if it’s hard work it’s worth the effort because they are a part of you and they deserve it.  It matters more than you probably think.  It might change their whole outlook.  It might change their life.

Family walking through the woods

Legoland Discovery Centre Ninjago event

Earlier this month, Dave and the kids went on an adventure without me!  Here’s how they got on: 

Ben has been a fan of LEGO since he was two.  Starting with Duplo and then moving up to the proper stuff with great speed.  He loves the it.  Whenever he’s saving, either pocket money or money from birthday presents, you can bet he’s saving for LEGO.  Ben’s passed on his love of LEGO to Chloe and Amy.  Chloe has started to buy the LEGO Friends or princess themed boxes and Amy has been playing with the huge box of DUPLO we’ve got in the playroom.  Ben’s got various sets, Star Wars, super hero, and recently he’s got a few Ninjago boxes.

So when LEGOLAND Discovery Centre contacted us and asked if we’d like to go to the visit their new Ninjago event, even though Colette was in London for the MADs and I would have to take all three of them on my own, I knew I couldn’t say no.

We turned up to Barton Square quite early on Sunday morning.  Ben knew where we were going before we had parked the car.  If you’ve never been to the LEGOLAND Discovery Centre before it’s in Barton Square, the complex adjoining The Trafford Centre.  As we entered the kids were given Ninja goggles (free during the event).  If you turn up wearing a Ninja outfit then you get a free poster too (while stocks last)!

For the uninitiated when you enter the Discovery Centre you are treated to a bit of an interactive play describing the process of making LEGO.  There’s a professor who needs help from the kids in getting the machinery to work.  All very interesting and gets the kids blood pumping with plenty of cheering and such.  This time there was the added element of some Ninja skills displayed by the professor.

LEGO factory

Once you’ve done that you go through into the actual play/display area.  The first thing you can do, although it’s not compulsory, is a ride haunted house/laser quest, ride where you sit in a buggy on rails and get driven round a track while you shoot various creatures and things on the walls, ceiling and screens.  Amy was very reluctant to get on the ride.  I think she thought she was going to be scared.  The other two were very keen though so I made her get on and after a minute she was fine.  You get points for every thing you shoot while on the track.  Ben and Chloe did far better than the last time they had been there.  Of course I won.  I didn’t tell them that though.  I’m not a showoff!

Lego mini land

After that you’re into the Miniland.  Locations from all around the world are recreated in LEGO.  It’s fantastic stuff.  For the Ninjago event there are Ninjas hidden throughout Miniland.  Test your own Ninja skills by trying to find them all!  It was while looking for mini Ninjas that a huge one sneaked up on us!  We turned around and there was Kai, the Fire Ninja!  Ben was very excited to meet Kai.  Amy was a little perturbed by this 6 foot red Ninja, and who can blame her!

Ninja Kai

There’s other Ninja based activities such as building your own Ninjago vehicles and in the Master Model building classes you can build Ninjago Eye masks.  There’s large displays of Ninjago models and face painting on hand for those that want a Ninja mask.  My favourite was the Ninja Laser Maze!  A darkened labyrinth where you can live out your fantasies of being a cat burglar in the middle of a heist!  I think the kids enjoyed it but to honest I was too busy tripping the laser beams!  They’re not made for people of a larger height I’m afraid.

Aside from the Ninja themed stuff the rest of the centre is still available including the 4D cinema with two different shows playing.  The large soft play area and climbing area as well as the Forest Pursuit (go kart track) if you’re over 4 years old.  Amy was gutted she couldn’t go on these and had to watch her big brother and sister crashing into each other.  I was a little sad I couldn’t join them to be honest!  Amy was very taken with the Merlin’s Apprentice ride.  You sit in a winged bike contraption that spins round a central pillar and rises into the air, if you pedal fast and keep pedalling!  Kids under 1.2 meters have to be accompanied which meant that I went on twice in quick succession with Chloe and Amy.  I was a little sweaty by the time I had got off.

Lego cinema

After all the exercise it was time for a drink.  The cafe bit has proper Costa coffee which I was most happy about and the kids enjoyed their Slush Puppies.  As a treat we got them some chocolate cake which Amy proceeded to smear across every surface she could find.  Bless!

The kids had a great time and as they had some money saved from birthdays and such on the way out I let them spend said money in the gift shop.  Ben got a huge box of LEGO.  Chloe and Amy got smaller sets but they were all happy with their lot (as were the The Brick Castle boys!)

LEGO purchases

If your child likes LEGO.  The LEGOLAND Discovery Centre is well worth a visit.  Whatever the time of year.

*We were invited to visit LEGOLAND Discovery Centre free of charge for the purposes of review however all thoughts and opinions remain our own*

*Read more reviews here*

The Blog Family Burgess! – Word from the Mr

It’s been a while since we’ve had a proper “Word from the Mr” – and Dave actually wrote this for me ages ago so . . . 

Colette suggested I write a post about being a blog widower!  A title she has re-purposed from the days when she used to be an Xbox widow.  Days that are so so long ago!  She asked me to write about this partly because she wanted me to write a post for her again (I’ve been struggling for a topic).  But also, because she wanted to see what I’d say!  Dangerous ground lies ahead folks!  As I am a brave man I’ve extended the scope a little (without asking I might add!) to include how Colette’s blog has affected our family as a whole, because I don’t think it would have been a very long post if I had just said “This is good, and this is bad. See ya!”

Burgess family pull funny faces

So here’s my musing on having a blogaholic in the family!

To answer Colette’s original question, “What is it like being a blog widower?”.  It’s a bit like losing a wife, and gaining a family biographer!  A bossy one at that!
Now to some that may sound wonderful.  To others not so much.  Colette’s blog has taken off in a big way over the past two years.  That is in no small part because of the volume of work that she puts into it.  It is every waking moment of every day.  Pretty much.  I say waking, I’m quite sure that she dreams about blog things all the time.  This prodigious output is visible in the blog.  Colette has created over 1000 posts in two years.  Which is pretty close to 1.5 posts per day!  That’s a lot of work.

To fuel that huge output almost everything we do is documented and logged.  (He exaggerates . . . ) Which can be a pain at times.  Partly, this is because I am a grumpy bugger! Of that there is no doubt.  Sometimes however it is justified.  All events or occurrences must be photographed.  Not with just any old photograph mind.  Framed, posed, well lit works of art!  This obsession with perfection plays into Colette’s focus on details.  She has always been, what some people would call ‘picky’.  I think ‘has an eye for the aesthetic’ covers it better.  I have to say that.  Or she’ll kill me!  (It’s true! The devil is in the detail!)  Now that she understands photography a bit better she applies this critical eye to all of her, and my, pictures.  Meaning a lot of the pictures I take are now no good.  When the editor’s eye is in there is no second best!  (Ok, I admit it.  He’s right.  I’ve always loved taking photos but I’ve become increasingly critical of my own images over the last couple of years – and yes, Dave’s too – sorry love!) 

Now the most immediate thing that is a plus is the things we get to review.  If you speak to anyone they talk about the “free stuff”. Colette has a real issue with people saying that the items we receive are ‘free’, because they’re not free.  She does work for each and every item.  It’s a straight swap of labour for goods. Which is true, but as you’re not paying for stuff that you would otherwise pay for I can see why people make that error.

To be honest the review items we get and trips we go on are great.  Some of the things we get are fantastic.  There is no doubt that over the past few years a large percentage of the fun things we have done with the kids, and some for just the two of us, have come from Colette’s blog.  It’s allowed us to do things I would never have dreamed of.  Some things I just wouldn’t have paid for but were fun all the same.

An unexpected side of all the stuff is the parcels!  The things you have to review have to get to you by some means.  So that means parcels.  Millions of the things.  It’s a rare day when we don’t get some parcel delivered.  Unfortunately we’re not always in.  Colette still works part time so our next door neighbours have side jobs taking in parcels for us!  We’ve turned the street into a postal depot!  Our neighbours must think we’re loaded the amount of stuff that comes to our door.  It’s embarrassing to constantly pop round and ask for the latest batch of boxes that happened to be delivered that day.  (This does seem to go in phases and thankfully has calmed down a bit now but he’s right, my poor neighbours must be sick to death of our parcels!) 

On the other hand there is the financial aspect.  Things have been tight over the past few years.  Three kids and an extension that needed paying for have taken its toll on our, already wobbly, finances.  There is no doubt that Colette’s blog has helped financially, as well as given us the opportunity to get out and do things that our ‘pauper’ status wouldn’t have allowed us to otherwise.  It’s been a blessing really.  Something which the kids can’t really appreciate at the moment, because they’ve never known anything other, but has made a difference to their lives.

I mentioned before about the documentation aspect of blogging.  That might be a deal breaker for some people.  The kids are quite used to being photographed and videoed with products or on ‘adventures’. I think they like giving their opinions.  Ben in particular enjoys being in front of the camera.  He’s a bit of a performer.  Just like his Dad!

I was asked if I had considered the impact this would have on our kids.  That by making everything public we are teaching our kids to not be private.  It took me back to be honest, because I had never really thought of it in that way.  I spent a long time thinking about my position on this, and here it is:  I think that photographing and videoing your kids is far more prevalent today than it ever has been.  It’s just so easy to whip out your phone and take a video or a picture that everyone does it.  You’ve only got to look at social media to see how commonplace people documenting their children’s lives is.  I can’t see anything wrong in that.  Now, whether this increased level of documentation creates a desire to be photographed I’m not sure. I do know that my girls will ask me to take their photograph and will pose accordingly.  This is cute at the moment, but it might not be in 10 years’ time.  I can only hope that by teaching our kids correctly we can counter any narcissistic qualities we may be rearing unawares.  If we can’t counter those issues then at least we won’t be alone.  There’ll be a whole generation of people growing up who can’t go 2 minutes without snapping pictures of themselves.  Funeral selfie anyone!  (I’m with Dave on this one, I am conscious of what I share on my blog with an awareness of my teaching job and also my children’s future privacy – but as Dave says, this is kind of how we as a generation live now – photos, videos, sharing – it’s become normal, thought admittedly not to the extent we do it . . . )

cute sibling photo

What I do know, for a fact, is that without Colette’s blog our children’s lives would be duller.  Less full of fun, excitement, intrigue and amazement.  New experiences bring childhood to life.  Seeing large animals upclose, visiting places which are completely different to where we live, doing something brand new.  These experiences make our children more well-rounded and aware of the variety in life than they would have been had we not taken these opportunities and stayed at home.  How could we not?  I think it’s your job as a parent to provide the absolute best for your children that you can.  That means feeding, clothing and loving, but it also means broadening their horizons as much as you can.  Give them every opportunity you can.  How else will they know what’s out there?

I know plenty of bloggers read Colette’s blog so I’d be interested to know your take on how blogging affects your life, and your family’s lives.  Let me know.

ViewMaster VR Viewer – Review

It’s a techy review – so over to Dave to get his geek on! 

Virtual Reality is the future. Or, at least that’s what many big players in the tech industry are pushing as the ‘Next Big Thing’.  If you pay attention, there is always a ‘Next Big Thing’.  Some of which go on to become the last over hyped thing! If you remember the nineties you may recall that Virtual Reality (VR) was around back then too.  It didn’t stick however, possibly due to the technology just not being ready for the mainstream.

Today is another day though, and View Master has a product that is designed to educate young minds using the wonders of VR!  The View Master VR Viewer is a headset that aims to introduce the user to a number of places they might not be able to visit, and teach them something about those locations.  Basically you hold the headset up to your eyes and it shows you the world.  Just not the world that you are actually stood in!  It attempts this feat with the help of your smartphone.  I think everyone is aware that smartphones are becoming more and more powerful all the time.  Higher resolution screens allow you to fit more detailed images on screen and the sensors within your smartphone let it know when it is moving around and which direction it is facing.  This sounds like a match made in heaven and could bring VR into your home for a knock down price.  It’s no wonder then that big names like Google and Samsung are getting in on the act.

My initial thoughts on the VR Viewer were good.  It’s well built with solid mechanisms and it looks alright if you’re into ski goggles!  There is a seal that sits around your eyes to block out the light of the real world so as to make the experience more immersive.  The seal is made from a rubbery material which feels fine against your face and does a good job of cutting out that pesky light.  On the right hand side of the unit is a lever, which you can press to choose various options within the VR experience.  It is your only means of interacting with your environment.  Luckily it feels solid so it shouldn’t break from normal use.

Once you’ve opened up the front of the headset you see the bracket which holds your phone.  Now, phones come in all shapes and sizes so the bracket is moveable.  That being said it’s not infinitely adjustable so you have a maximum range of screen sizes that work.  On the side of the box it says that phones with 5″ screens are ideal.  However, given that iPhones are extremely popular, it provides some packing pieces in the box so that your iPhone 5/5s will work with the headset even though their screens are a bit smaller at 4.5″.  Also on the side of the box is a list of devices that have been tested and work properly with the headset.  The list is far from exhaustive, then again there are a lot of  Android phones.  So it also says that other Android phones that are not listed may work.  This is important because in my experience, limited though it is, the phone you use makes a huge difference.  I have a number of phones and we tried a few of them.  The results were quite varied.

The first phone I tried was an ASUS Zenfone 5.  This phone has a 5″ screen, so exactly what the packaging suggested, but it wasn’t listed as working on the side of the box.  This phone allowed me to download the app from the Play Store and start using it, but crashed every time you got a minute into the VR part of the app.  No good there then.

The second phone I tried was the LG G3.  This has a 5.5″ screen and was specifically listed on the box as being a phone that worked.  Luckily it worked just fine.  Also due to the higher resolution of the screen the visuals looked worlds better than what was seen on the ASUS phone.

The third phone I tried was the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, my new phone!  Woohoo!  This phone isn’t listed on the box.  However it is quite new and last year’s model (Galaxy S6) was listed as working.  This phone worked, and looked, the best out of all of them.  The Play Store showed all three experiences as available to download and they all worked just fine.

If you’ll permit me to show my age for a moment, when I was a kid ViewMaster used to make those ‘Viewers’ which looked a bit like a cross between a camera and a pair of binoculars.  You’d put a ‘reel’ in the ‘Viewer’ and press a button.  As you pressed the button the ‘reel’ would turn round and you would see a different picture every time you pressed the button.  Up to a point.  This unit is the modern equivalent of that product.  I assume it’s to induce nostalgia in parents the the packs you buy have ‘reels’ in them that are required for each VR experience, because they don’t actually do anything really.  It would work just fine without them. 

So with this new generation of ‘Viewers’ you download an app through your app store that correlates with the ‘Experience Pack’ that you’ve bought.  Careful though, because the apps are a bit large, around 350ish Mb, so you don’t want to be downloading them on your data plan.  Once downloaded, you start the app on your phone and it asks you for your ‘Boarding Pass’.  This is found in the ‘Experience Pack’ that you bought.  As far as I can tell the pack works to unlock the information you’ve downloaded in the app.  You don’t actually get anything necessary from the pack information wise.  This system seems a little limiting to me.  As it means you have to buy the ‘Experience Pack’ from a physical shop, or buy it online and wait for it to be delivered, and have it in front of you, before you can use the app!  If you just paid for the app that you need to download anyway, that would allow more people to access it on a whim rather than having to organise things in advance.  This set-up seems an odd one to me.  But what do I know!

So, you hold the ‘Boarding Pass’ that comes in the ‘Experience Pack’ over the phone and it unlocks the app.  Now I found this to be fiddly at times.  Sometimes taking five or six goes before my phone would register the the pass was there.  Once it’s unlocked it then asks you if you have the viewing reels.  You choose yes or no and then it tells you to put your phone in the headset.  I never chose that I didn’t have the reel in my possession, because I did, but I assume if you choose ‘No’ it’ll just play the experience you are in anyway.  I hope so anyway, otherwise if you lost one of the reels you’d be scuppered!

When it asks you to put your phone in the viewer your phones screen is split in two.  With a line down the centre.  This line is used to align your phone with the centre of the bracket.  The bracket also has a line in the centre to aid this.  Once you’ve put your phone in place you close the headset and stick it on your face.

Now the reason that the phones screen splits in two is so that one image is for your left eye and one for your right.  The slight difference in each image is what fools you into believing that a pair of 2D images are 3D shapes and things.  It’s very clever.  At this point it might become apparent as to why the phone you use makes such a difference.  As your eyes are literally an inch away from the screen, the possibility of seeing the pixels that make up the image exists.  A low resolution screen with bigger pixels would make everything you are looking at seem blocky.  The higher the resolution the smaller the pixels.  The less likely you are to be able to see them.  So high resolution screens make for the best experience in my view.

So, once you’ve loaded the app and used the ‘Boarding Pass’ then put your phone in the headset it asks you to look at a reel.  When you look at the reel it begins to load the experience you’ve bought.  In the case of the ‘Destinations‘ experience, one of the places you can visit is Tower Bridge in London.  Imagine you were stood in the street by the side of the Thames looking at Tower Bridge.  The experience starts and there’s Tower Bridge.  Look to the left and you can see the Thames and the buildings across the river.  Look behind you and you can see the buildings which are in the street next to Tower Bridge.  As you look around there are a few areas which glow when you look at them.  Press the lever on the side of the headset whilst looking at a glowing area and some information pops up about whatever it is you are looking at.  Sounds are played through the phones speaker so you can hear the sound of London cabbies complaining about Uber drivers and someone saying something about “Apples and Pears”. I may have made that last bit up.

That’s about it really.  I may have been expecting too much from the experience and when you take into account the cost, £10 for each pack, it’s probably not that bad, but I did expect to be able to move around a bit more.  You can’t move or interact with anything aside from the glowing areas.

Once you’re done with whatever it is you are looking at you can get back to the Menu by looking where your feet should be.  There you will find a number of options, one of which is getting back to the Main Menu.  Press the lever while looking at the Menu button and Hey Presto!  You are back at the Menu.  You can then choose different locations to view.

My personal favourite experience was the Space one. That is in part because I love Space related things.  It’s hugely fascinating for me, but also because I found having a huge rotating model of Saturn hanging in front of my eyes to be fascinating.  The other planets in the solar system were there too.  There’s something magical about watching a moon pop out from behind the planet you are looking at and then being able to to view that moon and learn information about it.  I really enjoyed that one.  It was Ben’s favourite too.

The main problem for me with this kit is that I don’t see any replay value in it.  Once you’ve been through and viewed everything that there is in a given pack, the only time you would want to see it again is if you needed some of the information that is presented within it.  However if you needed the information it’s be far quicker to Google it!   You’d need your phone for both and one is exponentially quicker than the other. 

It’s a shame really because I think it has potential.  The headset isn’t overly expensive.  The visuals are good, so long as you use a phone with a decent screen, and the immersion can be impressive.  However I’ve never picked it up again after using it for the review and Ben’s never asked to use it again either.  It needs games, or experiences which are more interactive than clicking on something and reading a pop up.  It feels underutilised as a product and as such I can’t recommend it unless you are desperate to try VR on a budget.

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