The INQ 1 “Facebook phone”

A week or so ago I was surprised to get an email inviting me to a mysterious launch of some gadget that would, allegedly, improve my social life.

And it specifically mentioned this blog.

I was surprised because:

This is hardly a must-see blog.  Although my post on how I write the Who’s Who in The Archers book had over 1000 views, that’s exceptional.

And it’s not exactly a blog on tech or gadgety things.

Flattery turned to intrigue when the actual invitation arrived in the mail:  a rubber stamp, ink pad and piece of rough paper on which to print my own invitation.

dried on paper stamp and pad

dried on paper invitation

(These pix courtesy of Ms Geeky)

Dried on Paper… sounded like ink was involved somehow.

There was a little speculation in the blogosphere about what this was all about, but it was only on the day itself  that the suggestion arose that it was a phone.

A phone… seems a bit disappointing after all that build-up.  But it seemed like a pretty clever phone – very tied into social networking sites like Facebook, but at a much cheaper price than the iPhone or other smartphones.

So I made my way down to London’s trendy Shoreditch, partly because Unabombers were playing and Hexstatic were doing the visuals, which seemed to imply that that the event should be of good quality.

And it was.  Lots of attractive young people (who were they? why were they there?), plenty of free booze and not enough food to soak it up (nibbles courtesy of Jamie Oliver’s nearby “15” restaurant).  And indeed the music and visuals were good.

inq 1 launch - visuals

And I have to say the phone itself – the INQ 1 (‘Ink One” – geddit) is a cunning piece of kit.  Cleverly integrated with Facebook, Skype, MSN Messenger, Last.fm (not Twitter yet, although you can access Twitter via its browser, as you can RSS feeds).

inq1phone

It’s relatively small – much more the size of a Motorola RAZR than an iPhone or Nokia N95/96.

And at a base £15 per month with unlimited web/Facebook/Skype calls/texts plus 75 voice minutes (an extra £5 a month gives you  200 minutes) it’s very attractively priced compared with its flashier rivals.

I think they could be on to something.

Detailed review from The Guardian.

(I eventually worked out why I’d been invited, by the way, once I’d realised that 3 was involved.  It’s because I wrote about my 3 mobile internet dongle a while back. Somehow I didn’t think they wanted me because of my series about camping equipment for festivals :o)

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Great mobile internet deal

I’ve just ordered a mobile internet dongle from 3, through a very good offer I discovered through Martyn Lewis’s Money Saving Expert site.

The dongle (currently being advertised elsewhere for £50) is free, and the monthly rate is half the normal price: 

1Gb per month is £5 monthly

5GB per month is £7.50 monthly

You have to get the deal through the web cashback site Quidco.  You don’t have to join Quidco, but if you do you get further cashback (£12.50 for the 5Gb offer).

1Gb deal

5Gb deal

Festival equipment – sleeping bags

Having got something to shelter you from the weather and insulate you from the cold, hard ground, now you need something to cuddle and cosset you all night long.  You can’t rely on another person to do this, sadly, as they may still larging it at the Hidden Disco or be crashed out on the floor of the 24-hour café .
A good sleeping bag will never say “Of course I looked for you at the main stage. Where were you”.

Not this

Once again, in my dismissive way, let’s make it clear what I’m not talking about:

rubbish sleeping bag

While this sort of sleeping bag might be suitable for a visiting niece or nephew dossing for the night on the sofa, they don’t really cut it for camping purposes. Why?  Not  warm enough (wrong shape, poor filling material, leaky zips) and too bulky for carrying easily into the site.

Mummy bags

Already feeling cosy, aren’t you?  Actually, this is the sort of mummy we’re talking about:

mummy

A practical sleeping bag shares a similar shape:

mummy bag

  • a hood that can go all round your head (for very cold nights),
  • broadest in the shoulders
  • tapering to the narrowest point at the feet.

Other features

  • There’ll be a zip up the side, to make it easier to get in and out, and to adjust the degree of insulation.
  • The zip should have a baffle the whole length to stop warm air from escaping – don’t buy one that doesn’t.
  • Sometimes they’re sold with a left or right zip.  The theory is that if you buy one of each you can zip them together to make a sort of double bag.The added opportunities for, er, togetherness probably make it worthwhile for a couple, but when you split up you’ll have to make sure your new partner is compatible (“…NS, GSOH, left-handed zip…”)
  • There should be a drawcord, so that you can pull the neck of the bag tightly around your shoulders, or head.
  • On higher specification bags, you might also find shoulder baffles with a separate drawcord.  These enable you to pull the bag more snugly around your shoulders, than with a hood drawcord alone.  This may seem a bit over the top, but you’d be surprised how cold it can get at night, even in Britain in summer, given a northerly wind and clear skies.
  • The sleeping bag should pack away into a stuffsack.  That name indicates the way the bag should be stowed – literally by stuffing fistfuls at a time firmly into the bag, and then tightening it with a drawstring. (Only while in transit, though. When not in use the bag should be taken out of its stuffsack and ideally hung up, or put flat under a bed)
  • Look for a robust stuffsack, with good strong stitching around the drawstring, because you’ll be putting a lot of strain on it.
  • The stuffsack should have compression straps.  Once the bag is packed away, these help squeeze a lot of the air out, reducing the size you have to pack by about a third. It’s this sort of thing that can make the difference between getting all your gear into the site in one go or having to go back again and missing that up-and-coming act on the BBC Introducing stage.
  • If the stuffsack doesn’t have its own straps, you can buy compression harnesses, which go around the sack, but they’re fiddly.

Filling

Top flight bags are filled with goose down, or a mixture of feather and down.  This gives maximum warmth for weight, and maximum compressibility so that they pack away small.  But down is expensive, useless if it gets wet and needs specialist cleaning.

You’ll find a lot of synthetic fillings on the market, and these are a good compromise if you’re not planning on bivouacking on the Matterhorn in February.

How many seasons?

Most sleeping bags as classed as one, two, three or four season, and often have a temperature range that the manufacturer reckons they’ll be useable in.  Like tent sizes, these are often optimistic (I’m being charitable here).  At the lower ends of the range they seem to assume you’ll be sleeping fully clothed, including thermal underwear.

One-season bags (the season is summer, by the way) are really only suitable for mild nights and indoor sleeping.

Four season bags are designed for hardy types who own ice axes and crampons.

So for use in the ever-expanding British festival season – effectively May to September – you have the choice of a two- or three-season bag.

For many years I’ve used a three-season bag – an Ajungilak Kompact, and there have been times when I’ve been grateful for every degree of comfort that it’s offered me.

But on milder nights – or when sleeping into the morning when the sun is up, when a tent can be doing a passable imitation of a bread oven – my three-season bag is often too hot.  You can undo the zip to stick various limbs out, or to use the bag just as a cover.  And I also pack a very light cotton sarong.  Not for doing my celebrated David Beckham impression, but as an alternative covering for the hottest times.

My recommendation – bag and liner

Learning from this, if I were buying today for Spring to Autumn use – including festivals – I’d get a good two-season bag and a silk liner:

Silk is a superb material; light and warm – and of course it feels lovely next to the skin.  With this combination, you’d be prepared for all conditions, from sub-tropical (liner only) through average (bag only, in various states of zipped up-ness) to freeze-your-nuts-off-if-you’ve-got-them (both together).

What’s on the market

As well as Ajungilak – a venerable make, and worth seeking out just for the challenge of pronouncing it – you might also take a look at bags from Marmot, Mountain Equipment, Snugpak, Vango

Two-season bags

In the budget department, a Karrimor Global 900 07 two-season bag is about £35,

If you’re after real quality, an Ajungilak Kompact Spring two-season model can be had for about £85.

A silk liner (various makes) is about £25.

Three-season bags

If you feel the cold, like to sleep naked, or plan to camp well into the autumn, then consider a three-season bag.  You can get cheaper, but a Snugpak Softie Chrysalis Kilo looks like a good bet at £70-ish.  Or the modern version of the one I’ve got, the Ajungilak Kompact three-season bag, is about £95.

Carry that weight

The next article in this series will be about getting all this shiny new gear from the car park to the camp site.

Festival equipment – sleeping mats

I’m frequently amused/amazed/appalled to see people – often young women – struggling into a festival campsite, their arms overflowing with a duvet casually plucked from their bed at home.  Did they give any thought for the weather?  It would only take an inconveniently timed shower for their cosy duvet to turn into a frowsty and uncomfortable stew for the whole weekend.

It’s true that a skinful of cider will mean that when the evening finally ends you’ll be able to drop off to sleep on a fence panel – the thin edge.  But after a couple of hours of stentorian snoring (yes, you too, ladies), the anaesthetic begins to wear off. And it’s then that you start to become all too aware how hard and cold the earth is below your thin groundsheet.

So I’m going to start not, as you might imagine, with sleeping bags (that’ll be the next post), but with What Lies Beneath.

The cold, cold ground

When making their bedding from blankets, boy scouts of old were told “more below than above”.  And with good reason. Still air is a relatively poor conductor of heat.  But the cold ground will uncaringly suck all the warmth from your body like a vampire at an all-you-can-eat convent.

So you need something to sleep on which will not only insulate you but also ease the pain of the uneven (and quite possibly stony) earth digging into your sensitive parts.

Karrimats

The good news is you don’t have to cart in an armful of blankets. If you’re fairly hardy, you could opt for a simple thin foam sleeping mat, often known generically (like hoovers and portakabins) by the name of the original – the Karrimat. It’s a simple, body-sized foam pad about 8 or 9mm thick.

Here’s one rolled up and (at a much smaller scale) unrolled:

karrimat

They are cheap, light and durable, and do the job perfectly well, as long as you’re prepared to rough it a bit.  Finding or kicking/digging a dent for your hip helps increase the comfort level.  But generally after a night on one of these you know you’ve been camping.

So could I suggest a rather more luxurious alternative?  You’re ahead of me, aren’t you?  You think I’m going to suggest an airbed, like this:

airbed

Actually, no. I’ve never been a fan of these.  I find them heavy, unwieldy and actually rather cold, which really is missing one of the points of having a mattress in the first place.

And you have to blow them up, which either means adding the extra weight of a pump, or spending an undignified period on your knees getting redder and redder as you employ mouth-to-lilo resuscitation.  That’s not a good look.


Self-inflating mattress

My choice is for a self-inflating mattress.  I know that this name conjures up a picture of something exploding into life like Otto the Autopilot in Airplane.

otto

The reality is slightly less exciting, although still quite intriguing.

Self-inflating matresses look rather more like the simple hearty Karrimat, and certainly roll up almost as compactly.  But once you open the little valve in the corner, air rushes in without any effort on your part.  This is because the natural state of the foam which makes up these mats is to be inflated.

A few minutes later, you simply close the valve and you have a mattress that, as well as insulating you, will cushion your dance-weary body from the most punishing of surfaces.

The pioneer of this technology was the American firm Therm-a-Rest, I have two of their mats, and it’s fair to say that Which? magazine would probably class them as “good but pricey”.

thermarest

There are a lot of imitators now.  I’ve recently upgraded my sons to self-inflating comfort with products from the small British company Alpkit. Like most manufacturers, they supply a number of different thicknesses. The boys have the Regular Airic (4cm deep, £35).  For ultimate comfort you might like to consider the Fat Airic (7cm deep, £45), but it is significantly heavier to carry in (1768g, as opposed to 1096g for the regular size).

Next post – sleeping bags

I hope that will have you settled in comfort – nay, luxury.  In my next post in this series, I’m going to talk about the thinking camper’s replacement duvet – the sleeping bag.

Festival tents – the pop-up did us proud

A while back, I wrote about buying a tent for festival and other camping and mentioned that I’d bought a pop-up tent – a Quecha 2 Seconds XL II.

It had done a good job in windy but dry weather at Camp Bestival.

But it’s just come back from a really tough test.  My middle son took it for a three and a half week drama camp in west Wales (with the wonderful Festival Arts organisation), and the weather has been shocking.  Day after day of rain, often heavy and frequently accompanied by strong winds.

Six tents (out of about twenty) collapsed during the camp.  The Quechua not only remained stable but also stayed watertight for the entire period.

I think that’s a pretty good test.

What happens when your computer gets soaking wet

I had a very worrying experience a few days ago – but it has a happy ending that should reassure all computer users.

While walking around Norwich on holiday, I was carrying my MacBook in a rucksack and was caught in torrential rain. I should have found cover but my focus was elsewhere. I had a good coat and waterproof boots on, so I continued to trudge on through the deluge.

What a stupid thing to do.

I might have been dry enough but I should have known of old that a rucksack provides minimal protection from anything but a light shower.


Wet Mac

So when I finally got indoors, I found that the bottom of the laptop section of my bag (it’s one of those Targus ones, specifically designed for carrying a computer) was literally sloshing with water, and my Mac was soaked.

I dried it off with my handkerchief as best I could, and had a cursory attempt to dry it further with a hot air hand drier.

If I’d been in a more receptive mood, I might have enjoyed the comic picture of one man in a disabled toilet, trying to keep the automatic drier working with one hand, while with the other balancing a laptop a sufficient distance from the drier (ie near floor level) not to roast it.

Sadly my sense of humour was in temporary abeyance. Can’t think why.

So I returned to the table, trying to avoid the suspicious glances of the customers, who clearly could only think of one reason why a bloke should take a computer into a toilet with him. And then with some trepidation I started it up.

It worked!

For about ten minutes.

Then it shut itself down and wouldn’t start up again.


Backing up – what a good idea

It’s at this point that all my intentions to back stuff up started to taunt me. Yes, I’ll get a big memory iPod rather than just my little Nano. Yes, I’ll buy an external hard drive. Yes, I’ll upgrade to Leopard so I can use Time Machine. Mm… all of those would have been very good ideas.

Too late now.

I borrowed another machine and shared my pain with my Twitter friends. The general consensus seemed to be that I shouldn’t have switched it on at all, which didn’t give me much comfort.

But they directed my to some forums where this had happened to other people.


Dry it out

One suggestion was to seal it in a bag with dry rice, which supposedly would draw the dampness out. I haven’t tried this, but sealing it in a bag with its own moisture doesn’t seem very sensible to me

I just took the advice to dry it out for several days before trying again. I took the battery out and left it and the computer in a warm room for 48 hours and tried not to think about it.

When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I slotted the battery back in and pressed the “on” button.
It came on. And has continued to work perfectly.

I may have been lucky but if it ever happens to you it’s a course of action I heartily recommend. Although it’ll never happen to you, because you’ll keep your laptop in a neoprene skin, double wrapped in polythene and leave it at home if it rains.

Oh, and this method works for iPod Nanos too. Guess what else was in the rucksack…

Festival equipment – tents

A friend of mine will be attending her first music festival soon.  As I go to at least two festivals every year, and have been camping all my life, she asked me to advise her what gear to buy.  I thought it might be worth blogging about.

This post talks about tents.  I’ll cover bedding in the next, general gear after that. 

I’ll finish with some stuff that you might like to consider to make things more comfortable/affordable. That means, enabling to you avoid at least some festival-priced drinks and food.

You know what I mean by festival-priced.  Rip-off.


Golden rule

My general rule, as with everything in life, is to buy the best gear you can afford.  You may be able to buy good gear cheap, but that’s very different from buying cheap gear.  You’ll thank me when you’re in the middle of the sort of storm that made Glastonbury 2005 famous.


Don’t

I’ll start with some don’ts:

Don’t get a tent that is advertised as “ideal for festivals” (unless it meets all the guidelines I give here).  All too often, “ideal for festivals” translates as “they’ll be too drunk to worry about being soaked to the skin.”

Talking of skin, don’t get a tent that has just a single skin. That’s not a  tent, it’s a Wendy house.

Finally, don’t buy a tent as part of a package with sleeping bags and other gear. There are usually lots of compromises.  It’s much better to pick the item in each category that really suits your needs.


What sort?

You’ll almost certainly be getting a dome tent, which is supported by two or three long bendy poles.  There are lots of different designs, but they all perform the same basic function. It should have a sewn-in groundsheet and consist of an outer tent (or flysheet) and an inner tent.

The alternative is a pop-up tent.  These are quite seductive, and may be just the thing for you.  Details later in this post, but the general principles are the same.

The tent will be held to the ground with metal pegs, some attached to the tent itself and some via cords called guy ropes – ideal for tripping over at the end of the evening.

Zips will be involved to get in and out of the thing.


How many people?

My recommended tent-to-person ratio for friends is one person per two man tent. Anti-social, I know, but you really only want to share a tent with someone you’re comfortable in close physical contact with.

If you’re so loved-up that you are definitely going to share, then consider getting one described as a three-person tent – manufacturers are notoriously optimistic about the minimalist midgets they expect to be using their gear.

Or if it is a two-person model, then at least make sure it has a nice big porch, where you can put wet and/or muddy gear.  Otherwise you’ll have to be very disciplined about packing yucky things into plastic bags to keep your bedding clean.  It can take a lot of discipline

And going to a festival isn’t really about being disciplined, is it?


How much?

If you think you might go camping over a period of many years, and certainly if it’s likely to be on the hills at any time, then I’d recommend thinking of spending around £100 or more for a two-person tent.

What?!

Well, the Vaude Space II that I bought twelve years ago for £150 (and that was worth a lot then, ee lad…) is still going strong and has withstood gales and storms (including Glasto ’05), with me inside warm and snug – and yes, I admit – smug too.  I guarantee that over that period I’d have gone through four “suitable for festival” excrescences – and been much less comfortable the whole time.

As well as Vaude, I’ve been impressed by gear by Blacks, Khyam, Robens and Vango (this isn’t an exclusive list).  There are also some high end manufacturers such as Jack Wolfskin and Terra Nova.  If you can afford their gear, great, but it’s really made for mountain use/very light weight etc.

If that sort of money is out of the question, there are lots of tents on the market at around £40 – £50 that should still do a reasonable job.  In fact, I’ve just bought one.


How waterproof

One important technical point is the hydrostatic head figure.  This basically tells you how waterproof the material is.  You really want 2000mm or more.  Look for this figure in the specification. It they don’t list it, don’t buy it.

Of course, that’s only how waterproof the fabric is.  The quality of manufacture will determine how waterproof the actual tent is in practice.


Try it out first

If at all possible, go to a shop where the tent can be set up for you.  If you’re planning to share it with another person, take them too.  Each equip yourself with a big holdall or rucksack.  People and luggage all get inside the tent, zip it up and then try to take off your jumper.

You’ll soon get an idea if the tent’s big enough.

If that sort of road test isn’t possible, then look at the dimensions in the specifications and try to recreate them somehow in the comfort of your own airing cupboard.


Want me to tell you what to get?

If you’re not sure about wanting a tent for the next two decades, or you’re confused by the huge range of models on offer, let me make one specific recommendation.

I recently bought one of my several sons (all of whom are festival veterans) a pop-up tent, as he was going on a three week drama camp.  It’s only had one outing so far, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen.  It’s a Quecha 2 Seconds XL II (£49.99).

I got the XL – the extra large one – as it will usually be shared by two teenagers. They’ve already given it an outing at Camp Bestival and it was great.  But one person should be comfortable in the smaller two-person versions, which are porchless.

Full details of the whole range at the Quechua site, which also plays birdsong as you browse.


Up and Down

The joke about these tents is that they go up in two seconds, but take two hours to fold away.  It’s true that there’s a knack to it, but I’ve folded ours away and into its bag in less than a minute.  Here’s proof that it can be done (that’s not me in the video, by the way):

The advantages for festival use, when you really want to be installed and off to the bar or the main stage, are obvious.  And when you’re feeling a little bit jaded at the end of the event, packing away in the time it takes others to pull their guy ropes out will be heavenly.

Frustratingly, Quechua tents are only available at Decathlon stores. If there isn’t a store convenient for you, it doesn’t seem like you can buy them online.  Other manufacturers such as Gellert have jumped on the pop-up bandwagon. You might find their tents easier to get hold of but I can’t speak for the quality.

The only drawback I can see with the Quechua tents is that, rather than the traditional cylinder, they pack away into a disk-shaped bag, .

This makes it harder for them to attach to a rucksack, and the all-in-one construction means you can’t split the weight between two people.

But if you’re festivalling rather than mountain walking, I can’t see that being a problem.


Shakedown camp

Whatever tent you buy, don’t let the festival be the first time you put it up or sleep in it.  Have a practice camp in a garden or nearby campsite, and give yourself plenty of time and daylight to become acquainted with the poles and ropes.