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Monday, 25 February 2013

Skype - App Review

I've been using Skype for so long that it is part of daily life... perversely that means that it did not get selected for review; that omission will be remedied forthwith. Skype, as you no doubt already know, is probably the best way of keeping in touch, not only by 'telephone' but also by video. One of the real benefits is that the service is device independent; you and/or your contact do not need to have an iOS device.

Now for the ACIDS test:

Aesthetics
You can access your contacts directly from Skype, and those who already have a Skype account will clearly show up., and you can even see if these are on-line at the moment. You have access to your recent called list, including missed calls and any messages sent/received. Making and receiving a call are exactly as they are using an iPhone; simplicity itself. You can easily have a video call with anyone on Skype (and it's free), or even group video calls (chargeable).

Cost
A basic Skype account is absolutely free but is limited to contacting others who also have a Skype account (free or not). The real beauty is when you pay a modest amount and can now connect to any telephone number in the world. Buying a subscription is usually advantageous just take care in choosing the one that is best for you.

Indispensability
If a telephone is indispensable then, so is Skype!

Dependability
The quality of a call (from the point of view of sound, not content, of course) is determined by the quality of your Internet connection, as well as the connection (internet, mobile, or fixed) of the other party. I was recently in an area where mobile coverage made calls unviable and the Internet connection was not exactly brilliant; Skype managed to get a call through (impressive).

Security
From the point of view of eavesdropping, Skype is more secure than a traditional landline.
 
ACIDS Test Rating:
You don't have it already?

To find out how the ACIDS Test works, click here.
                                                         
You can get Skype here and support for the App here.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Maradiva Villas Resort & Spa in Mauritius

We recently spent 17 days (16 nights) at the five star Maradiva Villas Resort & Spa in Mauritius.

Let's get the good news out of the way first. The setting and accommodation are more than worthy of the lofty rating. The beach is magnificent and very well maintained (it gets a daily mechanised grooming, as well as the usual raking), with more than adequate space between parasol-protected loungers. The villas are large, each with a private plunge pool. The staff are attentive and go out of their way to make you feel comfortable and pander to your reasonable requests, with a smile. We were fortunate in being upgraded (side-graded really) to a beach front villa, with very early check-in (complete with beautifully prepared fruit salad for breakfast), and a very late checkout (with no pressure to leave).

If this is enough to make you part with your hard-earned cash and pay five star prices, read no further and have a great time at Maradiva; you won't regret it.

If you are still reading then, you expect even more than the above from a five star establishment; so do I.

What differentiates a five star hotel, over and above others is attention to detail and, especially, consistently high standards. Five star hotels do not have 'off' days, or at least they make sure that guests are unaware of any difficulties, so as to insulate customers from negative experiences.

Here are a number of examples of where the expectation of consistent excellence is not met at Maradiva:

I spent half of the first day attempting to get a viable Internet connection in the room. The hotel boasts Wi-Fi in all rooms, as well as a Business Centre which promises 'a wide range of services and equipment, including a personal computer with free internet access...'. The truth is that there is a keyboard, mouse, and screen. These are not actually connected to anything (no, not the very latest wi-fi/Bluetooth technology), there is no computer at all. As a joke, it is quite amusing, as a five star resource, it is an absolute disgrace. In the end, I made do with an Internet connection that was so slow that it could not even be calibrated on a speed testing App; it was a choice of that or check-out. In fairness, I should have anticipated that IT would not be the hotel's strong suite... their website is filled with errors, the worst being 404s (page not found) if you attempt to find rates or 'specials'.

There are a number of electrical appliances that either do not work, such as a socket on the terrace, the rheostat for the room fan (either swirling like a demented dervish or off), the fan on the terrace (absent), every other light for the pool (either external or internal). The lack of lighting made a meal on the villa terrace (an appealing idea) a non-starter. Al though the overall level of lighting is acceptable, the outside lighting is also a little sparse, making the walk from the restaurant back to the villa a bit of an adventure. The staff are more than willing to give you a ride on a buggy but, a postprandial walk is one of the pleasures of life.

Each afternoon a plate of three small 'pastries' is delivered to your villa. This is a nice attention, even more so as a lot of effort has gone into preparing these delicacies (always on a theme, so three very different pastries but always based on the same fruit). The problem is that, in order to protect the food from the rapacious birds, the plates are covered in cling film. The result is that what starts off as a great idea sometimes ends up as a squashed mess and is not appetising at all. Suggestion: serve the afternoon cakes protected by a cloche, or at least put a circle of card around the plate before applying the clingfilm.

The first evening we received a personalised letter detailing the next day's activities. This seemed a very pleasant attention to detail. The novelty and appreciation waned somewhat when the content remained virtually identical every day, even informing us of the activities at the Kids Club (hardly of import to a couple), or that the 'Laconium at the Spa is not accessible actually due to a technical problem'... must have been a major problem to never have been repaired. Suggestion: in order to minimise the ecological impact of 'no news' perhaps send a letter the first night and then, don't bother. It would be tempting to suggest sending the information by email but, this might be seen as causing mischief... on my part.

The hotel boasts three restaurants (one and two halves really). One restaurant is open all days, the other two (or two halves) are only open in the evening. These latter two appear to shut on a seemingly random basis. The aforementioned daily letter would be a good place to inform guests of a restaurant being shut the next day, rather than finding out when attempting to reserve a table.

Another nice touch is that one receives a moist perfumed towel as a 'refresher' towards the end of the meal. Unfortunately, it happens sometimes and not on other occasions. I have attempted to work out the basis for the towels being handed out but it is absolutely random. So, the expectation is built and then demolished. Suggestion: be consistent; always give a towel at the beginning or end of the meal (or even both!).

An evening turndown service is something which seems to be rapidly disappearing from many hotels; in a five star establishment it is almost a prerequisite. This service is provided at the Maradiva but, on one occasion, was not offered until after 22:00, and that happened to be the day my wife was unwell and was fast asleep. It seems that housekeeping is understaffed and overworked. Suggestion: if a guest books a table for dinner, the time for the turndown service could be made to coincide.

A warm climate and a cocktail go together like a horse and cart; it's difficult to imagine one without the other. A Caipirinia, Mojito, or gin and tonic should be within the capabilities of any reasonably competent establishment. Now, before anyone tells me that some barmen add their signature to cocktails, the real problem at the Maradiva is that you haven't got the foggiest idea of what you will be served in response to your request. It could be long, it could be short, it could be strong, or as close to water over ice with a sprig of mint as you care to imagine. The price of cocktails is not unreasonable for such an establishment; the value for money for that which is served is an abomination. Suggestion: check out recipes for cocktails; add your twist if you must, and then make sure anyone responsible for mixing a drink knows the formula and presentation.

So, how much time does a hotel guest need to spend informing his hosts that things are not as expected. My view is that only things which make it unfeasible to stay should be mentioned and rectification be expected immediately (or you may need to check out)

The hotel used to be known as the Taj Exotica Resort and Spa Mauritius, before morphing into Maradiva Villas Resort & Spa.

But, to finish on a high note... I am partial to a slice of lemon with my cold (preferably with ice cubes) water (not the most pernickety of requirements). The first day that we were using the loungers on the beach, which had already been converted with a towel, and an additional towel also provided, I asked for a slice of lemon with my water. I never asked again, and it was always provided, with ice cubes, and a smile. Now that's what I call service.

The acid test is whether or not we would return... and the answer is that we probably would. That just goes to show that the three supposed main selling points of a hotel (location, location, and location) really do hold... and the friendly and helpful staff also play a large part in a decision to return.

Monday, 18 February 2013

WeatherProHD - App Review

The basic (free) Weather App that comes with your iOS device is just that, basic. WeatherPro HD has much more detailed information and a much larger selection of locations.

Now for the ACIDS test:

Aesthetics
Just like on the 'standard' iOS application you enter your location. What is different is that there is detailed information for the weather (sun/rain/clouds etc.) but also far more with maxima and minima for temperatures, wind speeds and directions, amount of precipitation, hours of sunshine (if you're lucky), all this with very easy to understand graphics. There are also detailed maps and satellite images (in time lapse format) that all make the weather far more interesting.

Cost
There is a 'starter' App and then a plethora of in App purchases... not my preferred way of doing things. This means that you can end up spending quite a bit more than you originally bargained for.

Indispensability
Is the weather forecast indispensable? You could always look out of the window and make up your own mind on what's likely to happen next. Of course, if you want a forecast for somewhere further afield, an App is necessary.

Dependability
The App works fine. The problem is with the reliability of the feeds on which it relies for information. The previously mentioned time lapse satellite images might allow you to also make an educated guess on what is likely to happen next... without external pressures from tourist offices and the like.

Security
No issues.

ACIDS Test Rating:
Weather forecasts are not always accurate.

To find out how the ACIDS Test works, click here.
                                                         
You can get WeatherProHD here and support for the App here.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Hotel Reviews

A few years ago, over a post-prandial bottle of Champagne, a friend of mine (well-known restaurateur, radio and television personality) and I were putting the world to rights. I mentioned offering a service to hotels and restaurants to impartially critique them; he told me as I had not prepared pancakes with the Incas, my opinion would not be welcome. I dismissed this but also didn't take the idea any further. Ever since, I have been asked for an impartial opinion... watch this space.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

App Review Flightradar24

If you're not into voyeurism, this could be a fairly inoffensive place to start. Wouldn't it be nice to know where that plane overhead was headed? This App offers that very information in a sometimes very detailed way.

Now for the ACIDS test:

Aesthetics
Apart from choosing the colour of the plane (and the shape as well via an In-App purchase (Ugh)), tapping on a plane will bring up masses more information. This includes (as a first stage), the routing, altitude and speed. This can then be further developed to show airline, flight number, aircraft type, registration, distance to destination, time to destination, ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival), position (latitude and longitude), track, vertical speed (ascent, descent), Squawk and Radar... should give you hours of fun.
You can also filter flights, as well as going directly to general areas. One of the particularly well implemented aspects of this App is the extremely smooth rendering of the graphics; impressive.

Cost
There is a banner-supported free version which has a lot of the bells and whistles disabled. It is a good place to start if you just want to find out how much of a peeping tom you really are.

Indispensability
This is just for fun... or at least as far as I am concerned it is.

Dependability
I honestly haven't compared the data from the App to detailed airport take-off and landing information. The fact is that a fair number of flights are cargo flights and, as such, do not necessarily figure in arrivals and departure information from main terminals. I suspect that it is correct, and certainly that tails could be made out to coincide with the suggested airline. The developer honestly states "... technique to receive flight information from aircraft is called ADS-B. That means the Flightradar24.com can only show information about aircraft equipped with ADS-B transponders. Today about 60% of the passenger aircraft and only a small amount of military and private aircraft have an ADS-B transponder." and "Flightradar24.com covers about 90% of Europe. There is also some coverage in USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Middle East, Japan and other parts around the world".

Security
I'd be more concerned at knowing that you knew I was "up there" than the other way round.

ACIDS Test Rating:


 
This is just a bit of fun but very elegantly done, hence the high score.

To find out how the ACIDS Test works, click here.

You can get Flightradar 24 here and support for the App here.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

App Review App Icons

Whenever you use Safari and decide to "Add to Home Screen", a shortcut is neatly created for you which will take you back to that page. Unfortunately, the icon that goes with the shortcut is a miniature representation of the page; not necessarily the most helpful thing. App Icons allows you to assign individual icons to each of your shortcuts, thereby making it far easier to recognise what you are looking for.

Now for the ACIDS test:

Aesthetics
The initial screen prompts you to enter a web address. It is prudent to copy and paste it from Safari (or any other browser you are using); obviously this needs to be exactly correct. Next you get to choose a background (most importantly, including a photograph from your camera roll), shape, foreground, and border. You then simply hit the "create" button and then tap "Add to Home Screen" and you now have your personalised icon. It really is as simple as that.

Cost
There is a free version, limited to three shortcuts, and containing adverts. Once you are convinced the App is for you, it is a low cost purchase for the unfettered version.

Indispensability
Of course you can live without it but, if you have (many) shortcuts on your homescreen, this makes them so much easier to find.

Dependability
I have not encountered any problems whatsoever.

Security
Unless you are bashful about your shortcuts there is no issue. If you are not using private browsing then, as ever, be very careful as anyone with your iOS device also has access to your login information.

ACIDS Test Rating:
A helpful little utility.

To find out how the ACIDS Test works, click here.

You can get App Icons here.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Spinning into trouble

It's been a while since writing about that man who is scared of entering a revolving door. David Cameron's alleged antics over funding for the armed forces, ably abetted by his spin doctors, (who else as an ally in a revolving door) deserve closer attention.

According to newspaper reports, Mr Cameron has renewed his "pledge" to provide "year-on-year real-terms growth in the defence budget in the years beyond 2015".

The proverbial brown stuff has hit the fan, and the advisors in Number 10 are making it clear that what DC meant was not what he said. DC was referring to the financial year starting in 2016 (a spokesman said). If DC's little helpers are attempting to make him look like a twit, they're doing a great job.

If these well-meaning (I doubt it), well-intentioned (with the benefit of the doubt, maybe), well-paid (by the taxpayer) spin doctors need a little help in revisiting statements to reframe them in order to massage their interpretation (they've got me at it now)... here's how they could have done it so much better:

Firstly, "real-terms" could be interpreted as "real terms". This would imply that growth could be limited to term time (possibly that's because everybody gets a new uniform) and could even be reduced outside term time.

Secondly, "2015" could actually have meant "20:15" and the years after a time are not intrinsically temporally defined.

Thirdly, "real-terms" could have been interpreted as "Real" (Brazilian currency) or "Riyal" (Saudi Arabian currency). This could subsequently have been explained as the very epitome of the plurality of nations that make up a modern defence system, and the vagaries of international currency fluctuations make it difficult to predict the parity at any given day in the future (Sir Humphrey would be proud of that one).

Either way, DC would not be seen as a liar, possibly as an overly smart politician; too clever by half, maybe.

But wait, all this is just conjecture, smoke, mirrors... if one takes the journalist out of the news one is left with (somewhat bland) truth.

On Tuesday 19th October, 2010, DC stood up in Westminster to address the House of Commons and read out a statement, the Strategic Defence and Security Review (full statement available at http://www.voltairenet.org/article167408.html ).

This was a government statement, replete with the usual artifices and one unusually personal sentence:

"My own strong view is that this structure will require year on year real-terms growth in the defence budget in the years beyond 2015".

This was no pledge, it was merely a statement of opinion, albeit one emanating from the Prime Minister.

DC has a perfectly sensible, coherent, and (hopefully) honest 'defence' to his statement. DC had a "strong view" in October, 2010; events may have altered (or not) his view but, it should not be taken as a pledge; to do so is to take journalistic licence too far.

For once, a politician is unambiguous about his views, and at the same time clearly expounds government policy (see the full statement if you are incredulous). To then be unnecessarily dropped into the mire by his advisors is inexcusable.

A politician nailing his colours to the mast should be saluted... even if he might be a little naïve.