It's a PC, likely as not very similar to the one you're sat at right now. It's based around a 2GHz AMD Athlon processor, and has a nice big hard disk, a reasonable video card and a DVD/CD writer. It was cheap and cheerful, thanks to Novatech's efficient box-shifting service, and we installed OEM versions of Windows XP and Microsoft Office which we bought with it, rather than having them pre-installed, since we wanted proper installation media rather than "restore discs" at best. A few corners were rather unnecessarily cut, though: the video card model fitted officially should have a DVI digital output but doesn't, and the stock CPU and case fans fitted made it sound like a jump-jet taking off. The video card we could live with (though Windows occasionally gets amnesia and needs the driver reinstalling), but the fans were unbearable and sorted out after a couple of trips to Maplins. It's still far from silent, but perfectly tolerable. The supplied mouse was particularly cheap and nasty (though still optical, in mitigation) but we had a nice Microsoft one already that we can still use. Overall, good for the money, and we would probably choose or recommend Novatech again.
Large TFT LCD monitors are tumbling in price now, but when I bought the Samsung SM191T prices were still at a premium - even if it was about the cheapest available nonetheless, by quite a margin. Let there be no mistake, 19" is big: unlike with conventional CRT monitors, the quoted diagonal size of a TFT is the usable size you get, and the SM191T is about equivalent to a 21" CRT monster (like I had at work at the time I bought it) at a fraction of the physical bulk and weight. That's still a small area compared with the screens increasingly finding their way into the lounges of the developed world, but as a computer screen for general use it's enormous. Styling wise, I have yet to see a significantly better screen, with a very slim "silver" border and matching controls - of which about the only one ever needed is the auto-adjust button to exactly tune the monitor to the PC's VGA card output, and that only once in a blue moon, when changing resolutions. Connectivity is typical, with VGA and DVI inputs; we use VGA because our bargain-basement video card omitted DVI for some reason. Image quality was good at the time of purchase but not up with the latest models in terms of resolution (at 1280 by 1024), response times, contrast ratios and so on. However it is still perfectly acceptable for general use, and usable for games and DVDs at a push. There has been an intermittent hot blue pixel from day one, but unfortunately this was before Samsung introduced their more recent zero defects policy. However, this really isn't noticeable 99% of the time. The TFT panel is mounted ever so slightly wonkily in the case, but that's not noticeable either after a while. Note that contrary to some published specifications, the power supply is fitted internally (taking a standard kettle-type lead) and is not a "brick" or "wall-wart", if that has any bearing.
STOP PRESS: On a happier note than below, we have managed to persuade the card reader to write to inserted flash memory cards too. This is an undocumented feature that Canon for whatever reason intentionally disabled, so use at your own risk, and be careful particularly when removing cards that have been written to. Anyway, on with the procedure:
- Press MENU, SCAN, COPY, SCAN to enter the service menu
- Press + > twice to go to the CARD PROTECT? option
- Press OK
- Press + > to select NO rather than YES
- Press OK
- Press the // button to return to normal operation
STOP PRESS: This printer/scanner suddenly died on us for no obvious reason, just over a year from purchase. It displayed the error message "CARTRIDGE JAMMED" - which (according to a lengthy web-trawl) appears to be a paraphrase of "YOU'RE SCREWED", and frequently and irreparably appears on this model, usually just after the warranty has expired. In this lucky case, a bit of physical violence appears to have got it working again, but that doesn't inspire confidence. Caveat emptor.
"All in one" printer/scanners have come in for a lot of bad press over the years, no doubt fuelled by the especially poor quality of some of the cheap (but expensive to run) junk manufactured by lesser brands and widely rebadged by household name PC vendors. I had one of the first affordable Canon bubble-jet printers (the black-and-white only BJ10e) many years ago, which did me well for a long time, so when someone recommended we looked into Canon to replace our useless Epson, we didn't take much persuading. It turns out that this USB-only "all in one" is (so far) another cracker, thankfully. It only uses three coloured inks (plus black) but frankly we can't tell the difference from the five-colour output from the Epson (when it worked properly). Printing in black is lightning fast, colour not quite so but still acceptable for short runs. The printer driver also comes with nice features to help with double-sided printing, printing all the odd-numbered pages, pausing to let you reinsert the stack upside down, and then printing all the even-numbered pages in reverse; there are similar facilities for booklet printing etc. Note however that the printer has a tendency not to use the true black ink in double-sided or photo-printing modes, resulting in slightly less crisp results. The A4 scanning is fine, and has a much better driver interface than our old HP scanner. Very usefully for our needs, the scanner will allow you to scan multiple prints at once, and store separate cropped and rotationally-adjusted files for each. There are front-panel controls for initiating scanning etc, and more usefully to operate as a stand-alone black-and-white or colour photocopier. It includes a multi-format memory card reader, which can be used to print photographs without requiring a computer at all, as well as working as a generic card drive in Windows. Our only grumbles would be that the card reader really is just that, not allowing writing, deleting etc, the paper feed is not very reassuring - though despite it appearing that the paper is fed wonkily it always seems to come out fine in the end, so not quite sure what's going on there! - and it's a shame the scanner bed isn't quite horizontal. It's physically quite a large printer, but to an extent that's unavoidable given the inclusion of the A4 scanner.
Rating: 3/5 (was 4/5 until it died)
This printer sadly went in the bin after neither a very long nor productive life. It was the budget end of Epson's photo-printing line, using five-colour cartridges as well as the usual black ink. The ink cartridges weren't too expensive, but it was false economy when more ink was used in cleaning cycles than ended up on the paper. The final nail in the coffin was when it decided to drip and spread black ink reasonably randomly, rendering print-outs not really good enough for presentation - not good when we wanted to print some of our wedding photographs on it! For the year or so that it worked, the print quality was very good indeed, especially on to glossy photo-paper, but that really wasn't long enough for us remotely to have been able to describe it as good value or at all recommendable. Its only strong point was having both USB and parallel interfaces, for maximum PC connectivity. Epson used to be second to none for their printers, but the Stylus Photo 830 certainly does not uphold that reputation.
Let's not beat around the bush: this scanner was not a good buy. I wanted a USB scanner when I bought a previous computer, and the HP was certainly better than the Mustek junk that we sent straight back, but that's about it. The scanning quality was reasonable (though dark colours tended not to be reproduced very well) but the unit itself was a bit of a monster and the Windows drivers were poor. There are certain accepted conventions for what TWAIN scanner driver interfaces are like, in terms of selecting resolutions and so on, and HP broke the lot. But at some point in its not too heavy-use lifetime its operation at all became intermittent, but it never was entirely clear whether it was a hardware or driver issue at fault. It seemed much the same on our new PC, suggesting perhaps it was hardware, but it was time to move on by then anyway.
It's possible to buy mice that would look more at home on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise than in the home office, so it was good to find an affordable optical mouse with a classic two-button-and-a-scroll-wheel design - and from industry leaders Microsoft no less. Its cable ends with a USB connector, but an adapter is bundled enabling it to work in the more traditional PS/2 mouse port. The supplied driver software is a bit strange, causing a few odd problems when scrolling, but being ultimately a standard mouse as far as vanilla Windows is concerned, it works without the extra software, and in fact works better that way. Unlike some of the budget optical mice I have been forced to use from companies other than the "big two" of Microsoft and Logitech, this one has operated without a glitch ever since - and there really is no going back to non-optical mice now, is there?
It's a pen drive, it holds a gigabyte, and it communicates via the nippy USB 2.0 standard. What more do you need to know? Well it's physically tiny compared with other budget drives (so easily fits next to any other USB devices), has a spangly white finish and is made by Crucial/Micron who are themselves one of the world's biggest memory manufacturers, so they cut out the middleman and have a good reputation to uphold into the bargain. Recent versions of Windows recognise it with no further drivers needed. Only grumbles would be the lack of the physical write-protect switch that some competitors feature, and that the protective cap is a bit flimsy and fragile. Crucial have changed the design since (albeit to one that appears to be physically slightly larger, perhaps to potentially accommodate larger amounts of memory) which might address the latter issue.
When we signed up for broadband with PlusNet, a bundle was offered including this wireless ADSL router, and BT-branded PCMCIA (laptop) and PCI (desktop) wireless cards for a modest premium. A lot of people rave about Netgear kit in particular, with not much said about BT's hardware offerings in comparison, but this stuff has proved to be excellent. A friend of ours bought a Belkin router and has had no end of problems, having to dig quite deep in its configuration to get even quite simple things (e.g. VPN) going properly, and suffering from flaky and slow connection negotiation, but the Voyager has simply worked, firewall and all. First time - most of the time anyway! Any problems have been more down to wireless connectivity but even that's been generally fine, and nothing a quick "repair connection" can't fix. It supports wired as well as wireless connections, and implements the WEP and WPA-PSK encryption protocols for secure wireless operation. Like most routers, configuration can be done entirely via a web based interface, and it can be set to allow remote administration if necessary. The interface is nicely presented and fairly easy to understand, though sometimes it can take a bit of hunting for obscure options. There is also a telnet/ssh interface with much the same facilities available - and from which geeks may have fun working out how to shell out and explore its cut-down Linux installation. My only grumble is that its dynamic DNS support is faulty: I signed up with the service at dyndns.org, which it claims to support, but my account was subsequently terminated due to "abuse" because the router was updating the service incorrectly. I reported this to BT, but they say they have no plans to issue a firmware update to fix it - though there has now been an another firmware release but without details of what has changed. Otherwise, apart from BT's interpretation of "always on" and "dial on demand" being a little odd, no complaints.