Universal Document Converter: Review

Universal Document Creator is a small windows application ($69) which allows you to “convert” your documents into Adobe PDF files or image files. It works by installing itself as a printer on your system meaning you can use the converter from any programme through the Print dialog.


The name is somewhat a misnomer. The label “Universal” implies that the programme converts between different types of documents; in fact the programme only allows you to export your documents as images. The advantage is you can “export” your documents from all kinds of obscure programmes such as CAD and DTP software which is overlooked by traditional conversion software. But the conversion is very much one way and data is lost.

“Export” rather than “convert” would be a much more appropiate way to describe the function of the software. This is particularly evident in the “Document to PDF” feature. Dedicated tools which are designed to work with PDF files (e.g. Adobe Acrobat and PrimoPDF) will convert your original documents that fonts, text and shapes are embedded in the PDF file. The resulting document is pieced together by the PDF reader. This is fantastic as the document remains accessible, the textual information is not lost and files are much smaller. However, with Universal Document Converter, the PDF is exported as a bunch of pixels leading to much larger and inaccessible files and grainy text

That said – Universal Document Converter is good at doing it’s core job – exporting your documents to image files. Though the Printer Properties dialog, users are able to configure various aspects such as paper size and file quality. It’s certainly a lot easier than haphazardly print screening everything. The ability to integrate it into your existing flow through the COM-interface is certainly nice and the software can be set up so that it is installed as a network printer.

At $69 for a single user license, Universal Document Converter can be a tad expensive. If you’re looking for a tool to write PDFs, my advice would be to stay clear. Universal Document Converter will do the job for you, but in a way which I do not find satisfactory. Universal Document Converter does do a good job of exporting your CAD/DTP/Powerpoints as image files and provides all kinds of options such as compression, quality and pallet choice. If you’ve got a lot of documents to convert to images and you’d like to automate the process, Universal Document Converter could be for you.

This review is an advertising feature. fCoder provided me with a full version of Universal Document Creator for this review.

Wii Fit: The Verdict

Wii Fit Stand
Creative Commons License photo: włodi

I’ve wrote my initial thoughts on Wii Fit in May just after I got it but since I’ve had it several months now, I wanted to give an extended review.

I initially reported that it was hard to get a copy of Wii Fit because it was sold out everywhere. I had to go to a Woolworths across town, and at the time I remarked that Wii Fit is “so well designed that you can start getting fit before you even get home and set it up”. The box is pretty heavy. Why a pair of bathroom scales is so heavy I don’t know. There is a video on the Nintendo Channel discussing how the Wii Fit board was designed and manufactured. Since then, the stock shortages seem to have eased up a bit so you shouldn’t have problems getting hold of a copy.

So the basics. Wii Fit consists of two parts: a body test that you take daily which measures your weight and balance and a series of “games”. You’re supposed to take the body test every day around the same time and it plots your progress against your time. It also gives you a “Wii Fit Age”. Mine has fluctuated between 18 and 30 on different days so you definitely shouldn’t read too much into the results from any one particular day.

Sleeping on the job
Creative Commons License photo: Iain Farrell

The second part of Wii Fit are the games or exercises. Whether they are “games” or not is a matter of debate: I call them games because they’re fun. Nintendo calls them exercises. The “games” are split into four categories:

  • Yoga
  • Muscle workouts: Including press-ups
  • Aerobic Exercise: Boxing, hula hooping, jogging, etc.
  • Balance Games: Ski jumping, Skiing and snowboarding slaloms, tightrope walking, etc.

As you progress through the game and do more exercises, new levels and new games are unlocked for you to play.

Highlights for me include rhythm boxing, where you throw punches and dodges in time to a rhythm. In bubble balance, you’re inside a bubble and need to navigate your way downstream without bursting the bubble by colliding with the river bank.

Hula hooping is a really good laugh to play when friends are around although you’ll have to trust them not to record a video and to post it onto Youtube. The 10 minute version “Super Hula Hoop” is very challenging!

There’s an odd one called Zazen which looks like some kind of Buddhist meditation exercise. Wii Fit still gives you “exercise minutes” for it so it’s kind of a loophole for working your way up to your 30 minutes without doing any work.

Let it glow
Creative Commons License photo: Guillermо

For each activity, there is also a “high score board” where you can compare your scores against those of your family. This is another great feature of Wii Fit and encourages you to be competitive and work a lot harder.

So what’s the overall verdict? Is Wii Fit good fun? Definitely yes. It’s better than Wii Sports and it’s my favourite Wii game to date. It is pricier than most games but you get the Balance Board with the game. Have I done more exercise since getting Wii Fit? Yep. But nowhere near the 30 minutes a day – probably only once a week or so. The exercises can get a bit boring after a while and I just personally find it very difficult to find time.

Wii Fit gets a “strongly recommended” rating.

More Reviews of Wii Fit at TestFreaks.co.uk.

TestFreaks: Product Review Aggregator

TestFreaks is a new breed of technology product review website (still in beta). It is very easy to use and aggregates information from all over the world and all over the web. You’ll find both expert (from selected magazines and websites) and user reviews. There are also forum discussions, images and videos aggregated from both YouTube and Google Video.

According to the TestFreaks website the site utilises the following sources: “User reviews, professional reviews, prices, blog posts, forum threads, news, rumors, manufacturers descriptions and specifications, manuals, videos and more.”

Products are categorised tidily and logically and you’ll find everything here from new TV and DVD player to a new webcam for your computer. Under each category, it’ll tell you the most popular product and also the website offering the product for the lowest price.

There is a feature to compare the specifications of products side-by-side as well as the price on different online shops. Scores (“FreakGrades”) for each product are calculated from user reviews. Given the strong pound, more and more British consumers are buying gadgets abroad so it might have been nice for TestFreaks to have an option of looking at non-British stores (although they do have a US website).

Finally, TestFreaks also has their own forum to discuss consumer gadgets. It seems quite quiet at the moment but TestFreaks is still a young site and I can see a community developing around the website as it begins to gain more users.

An easy-to-use and powerful website which can save you a lot of time and money – I know I’ll certainly consult TestFreaks next time I buy a gadget.

Weaving the Web (Tim Berners-Lee)

I remember a few years ago receiving a copy of Weaving the Web by Tim Berners-Lee as a gift. Tim Berners-Lee is of course the inventor of the World Wide Web and is a real hero of mine. This is a fascinating book about the events which lead up to the invention of the web.

Tim Berners-Lee graduated in physics and created a programme called Enquire at CERN. The programme stored relationships between scientists at CERN, their projects and their contact details. In fact, it sounds very much like what wikis do today.

He discusses the launch of the first page on the web, the different protocols and the concept of URLs, the spread in popularity across the globe, early web browsers and the launch of the W3C web standards consortium.

In the last half of the book, he discusses what he saw as the future of the web: the social and eventually the semantic web. Although the book was written in 2000 at the height of the dotcom boom, it is interesting that this vision is only becoming realised today with the rapid explosion in social networking websites over the last year or so. The semantic web still looks like it’ll be a few years away but DBPedia might be one site to watch.

I was amused when I visited Switzerland a few years ago to see CERN advertising itself as the place where the World Wide Web was invented. No, never mind the physics. After reading the book, I found out that the people at CERN weren’t particularly enthusiastic about the web to begin with and I feel CERN may be slightly exaggerating their role in the development of the web.

Even though this book is reaching a decade old, it’s still a fantastic account of how the web came about. If you’re interested in the web as a whole and where it might go in the future, this is still one to read. I’m sure history students will be studying this text in 100 years time.

You can buy the book from Amazon.com (US) or Amazon.co.uk (UK).

Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds

A friend of mine recently sent me a few videos from the musical version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds: an absolutely stunning musical based on the HG Wells’ book. Some of you might be familiar with Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds album which is 30 years old this year.

The musical starts with the song Eve of the War and two other notable songs include Forever Autumn and The Spirit of Man and features Justin Hayward, Tara Blaise and of course Russell Watson who is also responsible for the Star Trek: Enterprise theme tune 🙂

The tour was really well produced. There is an huge orchestra on stage and the production perfectly blends stage action with computer generated films and giant 3D robots which shoot laser beams into the audience.

I strongly urge people to get the DVD of the live tour, recorded at Wembley Arena, which is simply stunning. And for those of us who didn’t manage to go to the live tour earlier this year, there is good news! Jeff Wayne writes on the official forums:

This new year, for TWOTW, will be quite active again – the 30th Anniversary of the release of the original recording looms, (30 years, incredible!) and there are some new special projects being planned to help celebrate that event, for release commencing around June. We also expect to announce a third UK tour during that period for sometime early 2009, which will hopefully have, yet again, a number of new and exciting ingredients that take our live show to even greater heights – a true Mark 3 version.

Philips MCB204 & DAB Radio

I got a Philips MCB204 Micro Hi-Fi System a few days ago for my room. It’s a micro hi-fi which has DAB and FM radio, USB memory stick support, CD (including MP3/WMA-CD and rewritable ones) and a tape cassette player.

I think it’s a beautiful piece of kit and at just £48, it’s a total steal. You’ll except to pay £40 just for a DAB radio, so for a few quid extra, it’s great having all these extra functions.

Before getting DAB, I never really saw the point of digital radio as I tuned my radio to one of our local stations and it stayed tuned onto that station for about the last year! Planet Rock is an absolutely amazing radio station on DAB though; it plays the likes of Pink Floyd, Yes, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Since Pandora disappeared, Planet Rock has become my soundtrack!

Unfortunately DAB radio has been going through some problems lately. GCap removed some of it’s stations from DAB. Channel 4 are set to launch several digital radio stations later this year but the launch has already been delayed and several channels were dropped.

Some people will remember when ITV Digital collapsed in the UK. Out of the ashes of ITV Digital came Freeview which is the most popular method of receiving digital television today. It’s possible that GCap leaving the DAB platform could revolutionise some thinking about digital radio and lead to new service which better delivers what people want.

Still, if you’re looking for a really good and cheap hi-fi system with DAB support, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to beat the MCB204.

The God Delusion

It’d probably be an understatement to describe The God Delusion as a controversial book. Written by Professor Richard Dawkins from Oxford University, the book describes itself as a "hard-hitting, impassioned rebuttal of religion of all types and does so in the lucid, witty and powerful language for which he is renowned".

It’s certainly not the type of book I’d normally have picked up; I received it at Christmas. I will say after reading it that I thought it was a fantastic book which I enjoyed a lot.

It certainly is a well argued systematic rebuttal of religion. Dawkins writes clearly and explores many of the topics he covers with jokes, examples and letters which he has received. Besides simply exploring the evidence about God, Dawkins argues that it is perfectly rational to be an atheist – that atheists can be good and happy people.

I think the main aim of this book is to change the minds of agnostics and pantheists (those who believe in God in the more metaphorical sense that Einstein does). If you consider yourself an atheist, you may find this book an interesting read. Dawkins also challenges religious people to read it as a test of faith, but that seems to have just sparked off somebody to write a book called The Dawkins Delusion, which in turn has been parodied by a Youtube Video.

Scientists and free-thinking philosophers will love this book which will explore not only God but issues such as morality and how we tell whether something is right or wrong. It could be considered a form of religious conversion but it’s possible to read the book critically and to make up your own mind. And  at the very least, it should inspire you to write a blog post or two about it.

The Book of Nothing

I’ve just completed The Book of Nothing by John D. Barrow, which as you may guess is a book about nothing. The book is really divided into two parts – the first describing the history of the number zero in maths and the second looking at nothing (the vacuum) in science.

The book looks at different numeral systems and the advent of the number zero. It took a surprisingly long amount of time for zero to appear – to have a digit which represents nothing.

The first half of the book goes into a lot of detail about how number systems evolved in different cultures – roman numerals, "modern day" arabic numerals, and numbers in different base systems (e.g. Mayans and base 60).  

There’s a lot of stuff to get you thinking. I particularly liked the Zeno paradox. It goes a bit like this:

There is a man and a turtle. The man walks at 400 metres per hour. The turtle walks at 40 meters per hour.

The turtle starts the race 400 meters in front of the man.

By the time, the man has travelled 400 metres, the turtle will have travelled 40 meters so will be 40 meters ahead.

The man travels another 40 metres, but by then the turtle is 4 meters ahead.

The man travels another 4 metres, but the turtle is 0.4 meters ahead.

And so on…

The man can therefore never overtake the tortoise.

The trick of this paradox is that we’re tending towards a certain point (444.44m) in increasingly small amounts. We can iterate the above statements an infinite number of times, each time the difference in length tending towards zero.

The second part of the book focuses on zero or nothing, in science. It talks about the vacuum and the ether in history, but goes on to discuss "vacuum energy" or dark energy, and how it can answer some of the fundamental questions about our universe.

This book combines a lot – mathematical history, religious philosophy and scientific theories. Barrow goes to quite a bit of length to try and show the beauty of zero and mathematics – there are quotations and poetry dotted all over the place. 

I personally found the first half of the book much more interesting than the second; the end of the book was quite technical and the book lost me a few chapters before the end. Which half of the book you enjoy will probably depend on your own area of interest, but this is certainly a book of two halves.

An enjoyable and interesting book.

phpBB 3 User Interface Thoughts

After 4 years, the phpBB team have finally released an update to their forum software. phpBB 3 Beta 1 was released last night. There is a list of new features at area51.phpbb.com and you can download it at the bottom of the development page.

Bloat and Configuration 

The main thing I notice about phpBB 3 is that they are playing catch up to the other bulletin boards. As a result, phpBB 3 contains a ton of bloat and crap which has probably been implemented simply because other forums have it. I can’t see why anyone wants to be able to configure the minimum and maximum username/password length or why anyone would want to be able to display the fact that Google is currently crawling the forums on the "Who’s Online" list.

Features such as these make the new phpBB admin interface a lot more cluttered and it’s much harder to complete some of the basic tasks a forum admin might want to perform on his/her forum every day. Take a look at the following screenshot for sheer banality:

CAPTCHA Settings

I don’t have half a clue what these options do – there is no preview, no information on what they do and why anyone would want to configure these settings in the first place is beyond me. Administrators simply want a CAPTCHA to stop bots. They don’t want to be able to decide whether their captchas are composited, have cells or how much entropy pixel noise there is.

For me, CAPTCHAs are one of the worst "improvements" in phpBB 3. I’ve posted a couple of examples of phpBB 3 CAPTCHAs before and they are absolutely terrible.

One of the best things about phpBB 2 compared to IPB and vBulletin was that the Admin panel actually made sense and that a normal administrator could actually work their way through the admin panel and get their job done. The admin panel shouldn’t be the home to geek toys and it should not ask the user to configure things they really don’t care about.

phpBB PM 

I’m sure there are plenty of nice features in phpBB which are long awaited but I had difficulty finding them. This is my first time using phpBB 3 and it took me great difficulty to even find the Personal Messenger and then the button to send a message! (I expected there to be a send message button in the content area of the inbox). Then when I got there the crazy people at phpBB decided that there wouldn’t be a text box where I could enter the name of the recepient in. Nooo! Instead, there is a "Send to" box in the sidebar (which I wouldn’t look at unless I wanted to navigate the User CP) and there is a different text box to use depending on whether I wanted to send it to one person or multiple people. 

Conclusion

I can’t help but think all the major bulletin boards are getting it very wrong. Normal people don’t want more features, they want improved usability and simpler interfaces. Office 2007 and Firefox have shown us that. phpBB 3 makes an active effort to get in the way as much as possible and make your forum life as unpleasant as possible.

Netscape Beta

The new Netscape Beta homepage has been getting quite a lot of press over the last day. It’s been described as a Digg killer. It’s also been described as AOL’s "Web 2.0" homepage, but it seems to be like an ugly Web 2.0 imitation site built with Web 1.0 principles (god I hate the term "Web 2.0" but it gets the point across).

I’m actually not sure why anyone uses Netscape.com anymore as nobody uses a Netscape browser these days and I can’t see anyone actually choosing to use the current Netscape.com. 

My initial thoughts on the site:

  • There are tons of adverts. Well actually it’s not that bad but the amount of noise on the page makes it feel much more clustrophobic and makes it appear as if there are a lot more ads then there really are. Digg has a much neater and cleaner design.
  • Hot Stories seem to be ordered by the number of people who have voted in the last 24 hours or something. This means the top store I saw yesterday happens to be the same as the top story today. I prefer Digg’s ordering or stories by the time it was promoted by.
  • Netscape seem to want to keep you on their site. When you click on the story title, you get given the news and discussion page. If you click "Visit this Site", you get the site but not only is it in a new window, it’s also framed. And the frame isn’t unobtrusive – it takes up half the screen.
  • There doesn’t seem to be much actual user participation. This should be expected though as it is a Beta. For the same reason, most of the news on there at the moment is about Technology as only people in technology are actually using the new Netscape site right now.
  • It seems like Netscape wants to be seen as a content provider and wants to keep users on it’s own site. It provides a link to the source only because if it didn’t people would be a bit annoyed.
  • There doesn’t actually seem to be any news. Maybe Netscape should seed the queue by having it automatically populated with news entries from sources such as Yahoo! Again, it’s possible the lack of content won’t be a problem when it goes live.
  • The editorial control is, IMO, a good thing. I still find that the quality of articles on Slashdot tends to be better than on Digg. Digg is hardly unbiased since it’s full of Apple fanboys. Editorial staff might be able to do the job a little better.
  • There should really be more to an article description than one line.

In conclusion, I believe Netscape.com Beta isn’t close to being a Digg killer, it isn’t much more 2.0 than the old site and it disappoints.

  • AOL in the UK is being sold and is most likely being purchased by Sky.