5 Christmas apps to help the festive season go smoothly

christmas-apps

It’s less than a month now and we can’t help feel a glimmer of excitement that Christmas is on its way. Each year we say to ourselves, “I’m going to start planning Christmas earlier this year,” but before we know it, it’s mid-December and we’ve not even bought one present. With the advances in technology planning Christmas couldn’t be easier and with the assistance of a few simple apps we’ve no excuse for leaving it all to the last minute.

Take a look at the following five best Christmas planning apps:

Santa’s Bag – Christmas Gift List

With a countdown timer, Facebook and contacts import for recipients, customised emails, wish lists, planning lists, shopping, individual gifts and much more all wrapped up in an fun and easy-to-use app, Santa’s Bag – Christmas Gift List could certainly help alleviate some of the stress from Christmas planning.

Setting budgets, keeping track of your spending and being ultra-organised this year is available for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch users. – What’s more, Santa’s Bag is free.

No More Socks: The Christmas List Genius

“The only gift list app to score 5 out of 5 on Macworld,” iTunes’ proudly states – If Macworld’s anything to go by. Though with a string of complimentary user remarks related to the “awesomeness”, “uniqueness” and “beautiful design” of No More Socks, this “best app in the world” certainly seems to be ticking the right boxes.

So what exactly does it do?

Users can store and organise gift ideas all year round, locate and bookmark gifts online, shop, share ideas, get inspired and set up birthday reminders.

Compatible with iPhone, iPad and iPd touch the No More Socks: The Christmas List Genius app is free to download.

The Salvation Army Christmas Music

So Christmas planning isn’t confined to presents and shopping and for many households music takes centre stage throughout the festivities.  The Salvation Army Christmas Music provides you with a great variety of Christmas music, including the oldies, classical, hymns, instrumental, children’s, soul/jazz, around the world and the Salvation Army brass Christmas.

Without having to sieve through the CDs locating the Christmas favourites or spending hours downloading all the Xmas classics, this app could certainly simplify the music and entertainment aspect of Christmas planning.

Stream festive music onto your iPhone or iPod Touch for £1.99 – all proceeds go to the Salvation Army.

Santa’s Christmas Village

Christmas planning is all about getting into the festive spirit and if the adverts, lights and shops laden with Xmas items aren’t making you feel Christmassy then call upon Santa’s Christmas Village. With 17 fun activities, seasonal pictures and festive songs, all the family can have hours of fun with this creative festive app. And when the kids are entertained, Mum and Dad can get on with writing Christmas cards, wrapping the presents and preparing the turkey.

Santa’s Christmas Village is available for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch users and costs £1.49.

Sleeps to Christmas Lite – Christmas Countdown

Christmas is a whole lot easier to plan when you know exactly how long you’ve got to go. OK so different animated Christmas characters holding signs that count down the nights, hours, minutes and seconds until Christmas Day might prove a little annoying and send you into panic about what you’ve got left to do but at least the kids will love it – They can even shake your iPhone or iPod touch to make a sleigh bell noise!

Download the Sleeps to Christmas Lite – Christmas Countdown for free.

 

Parallels Access Turns Your Windows / Mac Programs Into iPad Apps

parellels-ipad-app

Being able to get at your computer from your tablet is nothing new — apps like TeamViewer and LogMeIn already to a great job, and a free for non-commercial use — but Parallels Access offers something a little different. It optimises the programs running on your computer so that they mimic iPad apps, supporting the standard full-screen mode, tapping and scrolling that you’d find in anything you downloaded from the App Store. Your Windows taskbar or Mac OS dock is turned into an iOS-style home screen, making it much easier to launch and switch between apps as required.

It’s an impressive feat, and it comes at a price: you’ll need to shell out £54.99 a year for every computer you want to access, though there is a free trial available if you want to test the software out before parting with your cash. The final link in the chain is the Parallels Access desktop client, available for Windows (in beta) and Mac OS, which controls access from your iPad and makes the necessary adjustments on your computer (which you won’t be able to use if you’re also linked to it on your iPad).

We spent some time playing around with Parallels Access on an iPad mini and a Windows 8 PC, and while there were one or two minor bugs in the beta desktop client, overall the setup offered a great iPad-optimised experience. Installation was simple and straightforward, and our desktop software programs really did feel like native iPad apps, from the integrated pop-up keyboard to the simple app switching interface. Using Word was intuitive and straightforward, providing the fully featured software in a way that makes sense for a smaller screen.

Some of the more advanced operations (like clicking and dragging) take a little time to get used to — pay attention to the tutorial video that appears during the setup process, which explains how to duplicate mouse clicks and keyboard presses on your touchscreen iPad. Not every application works perfectly right now, but you can make use of the free trial period to see how Parallels Access handles your favourite programs.

Parallels has high hopes for the app. “We are now in an always-on age where people are increasingly demanding access to their applications and data regardless of physical location,” said CEO Birger Steen. “With Parallels Access, you can tap, swipe and pinch your way around Mac and Windows applications to ultimately be more productive at work, and lead a more connected life.”

You can download Parallels Access for iOS here and find the desktop clients at the Parallels website . The company also develops an extensive range of other virtualisation and cloud computing products.

The Exciting World Of No Cost Electronica

Electronica-Feature-Image

These days, if you’ve got a PC or a Mac, a little hard disk space and an internet connection you’ve already got everything you need to produce music. No, you don’t need to buy any more hardware and you don’t need to spend any money on software. None at all!

So, getting started is simple. But, as any dedicated producer will tell you, simple doesn’t always equate to easy. After all, the best tools are wasted on the inexperienced craftsman, right?

So, no, we can’t help you become a production wizard in one article, be we can help you down that path, and honour our promise that you can start without a single penny’s outlay.

And who knows, maybe a fruitful career in the music industry awaits, a little later down the line?

Too Much Choice And Too Much Information

But there’s the all pervasive software problem. Of all the masses of freely available software, where to begin?

Well, take it from me, as a composer/producer since about 2006, I’ve tried a lot of stuff, both on Windows and OSX. I’ve wasted many hundreds of hours testing glitchy software, suffering crashes, hard drive failures and pretty much all that bad stuff technology throws at you.

But I’ve also found some real diamonds in the rough too.

So, the purpose of this article is to cut through all the noise and give you a list of things that have stood the test of time and just worked. I intend to spare you many hours of frustration.

Let’s see how we do.

Thus Simple: Good

And, obviously, with so many styles of music to produce, so many types of plugins and so many individual ways of working – we’re simplifying a little here for the sake of your convenience (though it sure beats information overload).

So, let the simplifications begin!

Introducing The DAWs

A ‘DAW’ (Digital Audio Workstation) is essentially the tool that you use to take your musical ideas into musical reality. Everything from recording, to synthesis, to sampling to eventually mixing and mastering, is handled by your DAW.

(Insert Light My Fire joke here as/if appropriate…)

Commercial DAWs start at around £30 and go all the way into the four figure range. True, you aren’t going to get  £1000s worth of functionality with a piece of freeware – but you don’t necessarily need all of those features if you are. In fact it might be better not to get stuck on detail and face the all to prevalent overwhelm which can get in the way of your actually making music…

Reaper

COCKOS – Reaper  Windows/OSX

First up is COCKOS’ Reaper. Reaper comes up as #1 because in terms of speed and flexibility, I’ve found nothing to beat it. REAPER isn’t actually free, but COCKOS as super cool guys have made the trial effectively endless, and priced it quite reasonably for personal use. They probably find that those who stick with it eventually buy, and for $60 it’s a steal. Try it and see.

MU.LABWindows/OSX

I don’t have quite so much experience with MU.LAB, spending most of my time in Reaper, but from what I’ve seen of it I don’t know why it isn’t more popular. Unlike many other freeware DAWs the UI is sophisticated and the featureset is quite extensive. Considering you pay nothing, it’s a sweet deal.

Ardour

ArdourOSX/Linux

Again, I don’t have all that much experience with Ardour either, but it’s got a clean & intuitive interface, excellent plugin compatibility and awesome functions, such as matrix style plugin patching. Again, sweet deal for nothing…

The Plugin Suites

An audio plugin, as it’s name may suggest, is a piece of software that ‘plugs in’ to your DAW, expanding your sonic possibilities. For our intents and purposes they come in two main formats; VST, and AU (OSX only).

Plugins can do pretty much anything, but simplifying again, we’ll divide them into 3 types…

Synthesisers: Generate (synthesise) a unique sound, which ranges from obviously digital in nature, to more ‘natural’ sounding, and everything in between!

Samplers: Are used like ‘loaders/players’ for existing sounds (often banks made up of pre recorded sounds – ‘samples’, such as a drum kit, or a brass instrument)

FX/Processing: Are used to take an existing sound and make it sound different. An example of an FX is reverb, which creates the psychoacoustic impression of space and can make things sound ‘big’.

There are many hundreds, possibly thousands of these plugins available. To save you time I’ve grouped them into ‘suites’, by developer.

Here goes:

NI-Kontakt

Native Instruments – Komplete Players Windows/OSX

Native Instruments are one of the biggest players in the music production industry. Their Komplete range is an amazing (and expensive) set of plugins that pretty much covers the bases in synthesis and sampling . But they also do a little free giveaway in the form of their Komplete Players, which though just a fraction of the paid offering, are still incredible.

u-He’s free giveaways Windows/OSX

Triple Cheese, Zoyd, TyrellN6, Zebralette 

u-HE are one of my favourite developers, and they make some seriously incredible and versatile synths. All of their free synths are worth trying out too, being just as quirky as powerful as their paid offerings (albeit with a little less functionality)

Blue Cat’s Freeware Plugins Pack Windows/OSX

A very non gimmicky and useful set of FX plugins from Blue Cat that includes most of the studio essential, equalisation, flangers, spectral analysis, and so on…

TAL – Effects Suite  Windows/OSX

TAL’s free FX are very handy, and include some more unusual offerings – such as a bitcrusher and a tube saturator, both of which can make your mixes much harder and edgy.

DSK – Synths Windows

DSK are beyond ridiculously generous in their (pretty awesome) free plugin offerings. There’s way too many to list here, but it runs from traditional Indian instruments to synths that specialise in making spacey pads. Shame there’s no OSX offerings…

Illformed – ‘Old VST Plugins Pack’

Which contains a bunch of plugins under the FSU category (I’ll let you guess what the acronym stands for) Glitch 1.3, Crusher, Stretch & TapeStop. As of this date the plugins were no longer supported, but they still work, and for adding carnage to your mixes, it’s hard to beat them.

Soundhack – Freesound Bundle Windows/OSX

Soundhack (who teaches computer science) has some FX offerings that are slightly more…esoteric than some of the other free FX you might find. They’re presented in that wonderful minimalist UI that you might come to love and treasure.

The Single Plugins

These are same as the above ‘bundles’ but are individual plugins. Though not grouped in any convenient collection, these ones were too good to miss…

Applied Acoustics Systems – Swatches Windows/OSX

AAS are perhaps best known as masters of creating realistic (and far out) sounding string synths. Think note for note reproductions of Eddie Van Halen’s lead guitar tone or crazy alien violins. Swatches is preset player that lets you try out the best sounds from all of AAS’s synths.

FXPansion – ORCA Windows/OSX

FXPansion’s ORCA is a somewhat stripped down, yet pretty powerful subtractive synth that was released as a showcase for new & experimental audio technology. One worth collecting.

Magical 8bit Plug Windows/OSX

This is, IMHO, the best plugin to create the 8bit/’chip tunes’ sound in the style of the Nintendo gameboy. I use it regularly and love it.

Sam – CHIP32 Windows/OSX

Sam’s CHIP shows it’s age a bit now, but is capable of creating similar kinds of lo-fi sound to the 8 bit plug we mentioned above.

alphakanal – Automat

Automat is a pretty straightforward and useful synth. It’s workhorse capable of all kinds of sounds, from spacious pads to punchy leads.  It’s a pretty good ‘all rounder’.

Linplug –  Free Alpha 3 Windows/OSX

Linplug’s Free Alpha is a stripped down version of the Alpha synth. It also shows its age a little now, but is still capable of some cool noises, especially with pads.

IK Multimedia – Sampletank FREE Windows/OSX

IK’s Sampletank is the smallest of IK’s sampler series. Packing 58 free instruments and half a gig of samples, all sampled in the high quality IK is known for, it’s worth getting your hands on this one.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Vrs2OEq3InI#action=share

Camel Audio – Alchemy Player Windows/OSX

Camel Audio’s Alchemy is an extremely versatile sampler/synth hybrid. The full version is incredible, and the freeware ‘player’ still comes with over 200 instruments and a gig of samples – I think this one’s an essential!

Conclusion

This should be enough to get you started. Hopefully I’ve landed this article somewhere in that sweet spot between too little and too much information. What do you think?

Also, if you are looking for some audio hardware to get the most out aural pleasure and accuracy of your mixes (and yeah this’ll probably involve shelling out cash) – you may want to check out what’s big in our Audio Video category

Happy music making!

A KALQ-ulated Gamble: the KALQ Keyboard

KALQ

Despite its intentionally obtuse layout, the QWERTY keyboard has been a part of our lives since it debuted on a typewriter in the 1880s. However, the increasingly thumb-driven nature of smartphone and tablet typing has revealed previously unseen flaws in the QWERTY layout. The time is right for a new arrangement of alphabetic characters on mobile devices, and a group of researchers think they’ve found the optimal solution.

Christened KALQ after a particular arrangement of letters, this brand-new keyboard layout has been designed to allow thumb-typing at speeds well in excess of anything possible using the time-honoured QWERTY template. KALQ organises letters into neat banks of four, with a cluster positioned at either side of a mobile device. Although this layout will initially seem unfamiliar, the developers claim it will only take around eight hours of use before typing speeds can match QWERTY keyboards. After this, it will be possible to type more quickly and more comfortably, with less tendon stretching required to reach letters like Y or G. Users of KALQ can apparently manage 37 words per minute, compared to 20 with the QWERTY layout.

The science behind KALQ is rather complex, which is perhaps unsurprising considering its creators included researchers at the University of St Andrews, the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, and Montana Tech. This eclectic team used computational optimisation techniques, probabilistic error correction methods and simulated thumb movements to rule out millions of different layouts. Left- and right-handed variants of the winning combination will be available, and the key layout reflects the fact that many regularly-used words like “on”, “see”, “you”, and “read” all rely on a single thumb when using the QWERTY formation. Conversely, KALQ has been programmed to minimise strings of single-finger typing, in favour of constantly switching between thumbs – all the vowel keys are situated on one side, whereas the opposite keyboard contains more letters overall.

KALQ is set to be debuted at the CHI 2013 conference in Paris on May 1st, which is described as “the principal international forum for outstanding research and development in human-computer interaction.” Alternatively, for anyone not planning on attending this landmark event, the KALQ app should be available for download onto any Android device within a couple of weeks.

KALQ will be available to download as a free app for all Android-based devices, from mid-May onwards. Further information can be obtained by visiting here.

Carrot Car Insurance: Driving Costs Down for Kids

Carrot-Car-Insurance

First timer drivers face a Herculean task when it comes to getting insured on their first car. At the moment the Bank of Mum and Dad is the easiest way to get a son or daughter insured on a reasonable car without paying a fortune on insurance premiums – but this also means Mum and Dad’s well earned no claims can also be on the line.

But there is another way: Carrot Insurance; and the clue is in the name. Carrot Insurance utilises a unique carrot-and-stick model whereby young drivers are rewarded by safe driving with monthly cash rewards reducing the overall cost of insurance depending on how safe their driving has been every 3 months.

Using a telematics unit – the i-box – Carrot has created a bespoke driver feedback platform that offers total transparency and a genuine opportunity for the customers to feel fully engaged in the process of driving safety.

The i-box is supplied and fitted to your car at no additional cost by a member of Carrot’s expert mobile installations team, making sure the box is installed within two weeks of your policy start date. And as soon as it’s done and the i-box is activated, the Carrot send customers an exclusive Carrot Card prepaid MasterCard, which is loaded with a £20 welcome bonus – and the card is then used by Carrot to pay cash rewards to drivers depending on your quarterly driver score.

Carrot-Insurance-Laptop

Drivers using the system have access to their Driving Style score via an online dashboard, meaning you can see the impact on every journey has on the overall scoring and value of cash rewards you can earn. Carrot has also implemented a social media focus, meaning users can post their Driving Style scores across on Facebook and see how they compare with their friends and family.

The way the score is a worked out is by monitoring driving style such as acceleration, braking, swerving, and the number, and length of journeys, made. This information is then compiled into three categories – speed, smoothness and usage – those are then combined to an overall Driving Style score, from which quarterly rewards are calculated, with customers being able to earn up to a maximum of 15% off their annual premium via cash rewards.

“We’re finding that the combination of lower premiums, generous Driving Style cash rewards, refer-a-friend rewards and further cashback from our retail partners offers something really refreshing and genuinely appealing to young drivers.”

Ed Rochfort, Carrot Insurance

At the outset, policyholders choose their annual mileage – between 3,000 and 7,000 to start with – but can buy Top-Up miles should they need more. This enables them to pay only for the miles they need, helping them get on to the road much more affordably in the first place.

A £20 welcome bonus is paid to every customer that receives a Carrot Card at the inception of his or her policy and is paid subsequently as a reward for having their i-box installed and activated. If the policyholder improves on their Driving Style starting score, cash rewards are paid on to a Carrot prepaid MasterCard card at the end of each quarter.

The Carrot Card enables the holder to earn cashback when used at a network of high street retailers, including Topshop, Debenhams, House of Fraser, Halfords and Zizzi – making their cash rewards go even further.

A £40 cash reward is also paid to the customer for each friend that goes on to buy a policy as a result of Carrot’s unique Facebook App

Windows 8 review of reviews: Fireman’s poles, tiles and hyperbole?

Let’s for one minute, strip away the hysteria and PR hyperbole that accompanies every Windows release and get down to the brass tacks of this latest release. Is it really the best thing Microsoft has produced since the dawn of time as it would lead us to believe? Microsoft is saying it’s the biggest upgrade to the operating system in 17 years, but what do the reviewers make of it?

Charles Arthur at The Guardian reckons it’s more like Windows 7+1 and uses a wonderful analogy of sliding down the fireman’s pole if you want to visit the more familiar Windows 7 desktop.

“The “Start screen”, as Microsoft calls it, consists only of those big tiles, and completely replaces the desktop you first see on Windows – although, let’s be clear, that old Windows desktop is still there. It’s just hidden one layer down, and if you want to jump down into it there’s a perfectly good fireman’s pole in the form of a tile called “Desktop”. Click or touch that, and you’re in Windows 7″

Win-8-Start

Engadget opens up with perhaps a more obvious statement on the much heralded tiles:

“It’s safe to say the Windows Phone-esque Live Tiles have been the single most polarizing thing about Windows 8. Which makes sense: the new, mobile-inspired Start Screen looks wholly different from anything we’ve seen on previous versions of Windows. What’s more, you can’t even interact with these apps the same way: they run at full-screen, and can’t be minimized or re-sized like the windows you’re used to. In short, these tiles are the cornerstone of the Windows 8 experience, and they’re impossible to avoid, even if you plan on doing much of your work in the traditional desktop”

Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor at The Telegraph on the other hand discusses whether or not trying to combine an operating system for both tablets and PC’s is a wise move: “If you have an existing PC that doesn’t have a touchscreen, Windows 8 is more of an enticement to buy a new one than it is a reason to upgrade”

Win-8-Pics

And then goes on to highlight the more eccentric aspects of the OS:

“For new users, Windows 8 will sometimes be infuriating – how do you close a programme? Why are there two versions of Internet Explorer, one for desktop, one for Windows 8 proper? (Because Windows 8 proper is more powerful.) Why is there no Facebook app, when Microsoft is a Facebook investor? Why is logging in to a wired network different from a wireless one? None of these are crises, but all of them indicate that Windows 8 remains the future – it will certainly not be the present until Intel chips power it to its full potential. And by then, the software will have been polished and the apps library filled. January can’t come soon enough”.

It seems the jury is out as to Microsoft’s bold tactic of trying to crowbar one operating system into two platforms, but reviewers are united in their praise of Live Tiles although confusion will reign at first as Jim Martin from PC Advisor says: “It’s at this point which many people will feel lost, but as with any new interface, it takes only a few minutes to gain your bearings and figure out where things are and how to accomplish tasks.”

The Changing Face of Software

The days of floppy disks and CD-ROMS are well an truly over. Not only can we download most of our software online now, but the growth of the open-source market means we can usually find free alternatives to popular tools. These don’t always have the same features and functionality as their costly counterparts, nor are they as aesthetically pleasing. They do, however, get the job done and provide a cost-effective solution if you can’t afford the full-blown copyrighted software.

Floppy
Image courtesy of Flikr user TheEggPlant

Image Editing

Photoshop is renowned for being brilliant but prohibitively expensive. GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program) is an open-source alternative that has many of photoshop’s key features. You can use GIMP for image retouching, image composition and image authoring across several operating systems, including Windows, Mac and Linux.

Paint.net is a Windows-only paint program that offers foundation image editing features and is perfect for touching up digital photos.The software enables users to introduce layers, special effects and a range of other tools, as well as make use of the limited undo feature.

Audio

Audacity is a free cross-platform audio recorder and editor. As well as recording live audio, you can use it to convert tapes and records into digital files or CDs, edit different sound file formats, splice, cut, copy and mix sounds together and change the speed of recordings. Audacity is compatible with Windows, Mac OS X and Linux platforms.

VLC Media Player is a comprehensive multimedia player that will play practically any file format you throw at it. Music, video, devices, disks, webcams and different streaming protocols are all welcome and VLC often comes to the rescue when you get your hands on those awkward files that none of your other existing software will play. The media player runs on all platforms.

Word Processing and Office Packages

Open Office is one of the most popular open-source office packages around. Available for Mac and Windows, the software is compatible with most other major office suites, and contains Writer, a word processor, Calc, a spreadsheet, Impress, useful for creating presentations, and other office-related tools.

Libre Office is another productivity suite containing word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and database tools that are available for Mac and Windows. Mac users might also enjoy Bean, a word processor for OS that is designed to be as simple and uncluttered as possible.

CyberLink PhotoDirector 3 review: Lightroom streamlined

CyberLink PhotoDirector 3 is out, and we’ve decided to put it through its paces. Not just by reviewing it, but by putting it up against the number one PC photo management and editing tool – Adobe Lightroom 3. Can it topple the editing giant?

CyberLink

Yes – if you’re a beginner

There’s a lot to like about CyberLink PhotoDirector 3, from the cute loading animation to some pretty powerful features. The real selling point, however, is ease-of-use.

PhotoDirector 3 has streamlined Lightroom’s editing interface, increased the font size and generally made navigating the complicated options of something like Lightroom much easier.

Rather than digging through the options of Lightroom, all the most commonly used features for amateur photographers are available as big, obvious options – “People Beautifier” is one, “Photo Effects”, “Remove Objects”, “Watermarks”. They’re all useful, automated options that are a bit hidden in Lightroom and have been put to the fore in Cyberlink’s product.

Each option comes with a mini-tutorial as you use them, providing instructions on how to use it. It’s super-user friendly, and could really bring these editing tools to the masses.

Check out the intro video:

Unfortunately, it’s all a bit slow. Even on our behemoth of a computer (12GB RAM, SSD hard drive, Intel Something Amazing Processor) piling on too many effects causes the program to return long waiting times between actions. In fairness to Cyberlink, it does tell you that the image is loading, rather than just leaving you hanging and hoping for the best.

Lightroom 3 – the older product – has no such problem on our computer. This may be a set-up thing, but perhaps some of the automation from Cyberlink has caused some slow-down – enough to provide a mild irritation for users.

The presets are also superior to Lightroom’s – if you’re looking to turn your family and friends into models. There are some other types, but the selection feels like they’ve all been set to make people more beautiful, rather than enhance any artistic quality of the photographs.

Our biggest concern, however, is intellectual property theft. PhotoDirector 3 is like a large-fonted twin of Lightroom, from the grey-on-grey theme, to the walk-through style editing menu at the top, to the layout of the image editing tools. Really, Cyberlink, we know Lightroom is good – but did you have to go for something so similar?

The similarities really annoy us, because PhotoDirector 3 could be a stand-up tool even without copying Lightroom so closely. And there are a bunch of things about Lightroom that annoy us (including ease-of-use) that CyberLink could have fixed. Still, if you’re an amateur photographer and feel daunted by Lightroom’s options, then PhotoDirector is the tool for you.