The digital SLR (single lens reflex) has come a long way. Initially targeted at professional photographers, prosumer models offer amateurs much of the same versatility that professionals usually have to hand while balancing the need to keep things simple.
Nikon's new mid-range digital SLR camera, the D5000, features a 12.3-megapixel capability and also combines most of the D90's features into a lighter body - strong plastic over a metal casing, and the build quality is high. It feels light but robust, and is comfortable to hold. The right-hand side controls are sensibly placed, and there is a row of buttons on the left of the monitor.
It has a 'flip-and-twist' monitor with a hinge and pivot at the bottom enabling it to be rotated so that it points forward underneath the camera, or twisted right around to protect it against the camera body.
However, a side-mounted hinge would have been a lot more flexible, particularly when using a tripod. The automatic settings such as the scene modes and the AF system produced good results when we tested it, but it also offers manual control and custom settings for more experienced users.
The viewfinder is large and bright with a clear data display, which includes an optional grid overlay.
It also features a video mode shooting at up 1280 x 720 resolution at 24fps (frames per second). Sound is recorded by an inbuilt omni-directional mic. But dynamic autofocus is disabled in video tracking shots.
It also has a dual menu system. The main shooting settings are displayed on the monitor along with basic exposure information, a match-needle meter and a graphic representation of the selected aperture - but it is quite cumbersome to operate. However, the main menu is a lot easier to use and automatically saves 'recent settings'.
It also has a retouch menu, which includes lighting adjustment, red-eye correction, cropping, rotation, distortion correction, perspective adjustment, a colour balance correction and filter effects. There is also a useful in-camera 'Raw' processing option, as well as multi-image overlay and stop-motion animation.
Sony Alpha DSLR-A330
Sony's new SLR baby takes its cue from its predecessor, the A300, but in a slicker body and better software. Building on Sony/Minolta's heritage in camera engineering, it's a solidly designed option with a reasonable 10.2 megapixel CCD.
The viewfinder can be tilted up at a 90 degree angle to the body or down at a 55 degree angle. The A330 also offers 'Live View' shooting. At the moment there's no body-only version of the A330, but it comes with the standard 18-55mm lens, which is of limited quality.
The mode dial provides the access to automatic scene modes and manual settings. It has an SD and Memory Stick Pro Duo slot with a manual switch to choose between the two.
Above the navigation switch is the function button, which accesses commonly used settings such as autofocus mode, AF area, metering mode and white balance with useful explanations to explain the purpose of a setting to the novice user.
The monitor controls mean that you are able to navigate the menu system to set image quality, flash and toggle the image stabilisation, but it is a fairly straight forward interface. The viewfinder itself is very small and difficult to use with a low magnification, but the SteadyShot scale helpfully prompts you when the image is stable.
The autofocus in live view is surprisingly fast delivering an excellent point-and-shoot experience.
Overall, the Nikon offers greater flexibility of control - requiring slightly more experimentation when in manual mode. However, the Sony wins out on delivering a straight forward point-and-shoot experience for the more novice user.
Free Office productivity from any PC
Some PC applications are now a modern necessity, such as the word processor, spreadsheet, calendar, to-do list, graphics and photo editor and presentation developer.
Most likely, at work you will be using a version of Microsoft Office that will have some or all of the above applications. However, the last few years has witnessed growing competition to Microsoft's flagship desktop production suite.
The open source community spawned the Open Office Production Suite several years back - and the development of this alternative has more-or-less kept pace with Microsoft. But in addition to installing the software on one computer, it is also possible to install and run the software from a USB drive as the footprint of the software is relatively small - as are browsers such as Firefox.
But you might want to consider going truly virtual with Web applications. Most online productivity suites are easy to use and perform a lot of functions well. There are hundreds of companies competing to provide office productivity solutions like document and file storage and backup, online storage, document editing, sharing, and publication, synchronising calendars, setting online and office meeting spaces, reminder services, managing to-do lists, etc.
The advantage of operating on the Web is that it is available 24/7 from wherever you are located. Often the cost is minimal or free for home users. As to be expected, the top players are well known IT brands: Adobe, Google and Microsoft - and they are competing with one another.
Adobe has a number of free applications that you can use online, such as Photoshop Express (photo-editing), Buzzword (wordprocessing), ConnectNow (collaboration and screen sharing).
Google office applications include Gmail as well as Google Docs (combined wordprocessing, spreadsheets and presentations) and Google Calendar. The standard edition is free and includes Gmail, Google Talk, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Sites and iGoogle Start Page.
Microsoft has belatedly extended and improved its Windows Live and Office Live experience. In addition to Hotmail, it now offers Windows Live Spaces (for blogging, sharing photos, social networking and storage). Additionally, from the middle of next year, an ad-supported free version of MS Office will come pre-loaded on Windows computers and, when that happens, the current MS Works that comes free on Windows XP and Vista computers will be discontinued.
Zoho offers the largest range and arguably the best integrated suite of online office applications. What's more, they are free for individuals, but some carry a subscription fee for organisations. These apps support online collaboration and productivity online and also have mobile versions for Windows Mobile and iPhone. Registration is free and you can even sign in using your Google or Yahoo login.
I have a Vaio VGN-TZ 18GN with a 32GB solid state 'hard drive' running Vista. I have no user files on the machine (they are all on removable media) and apart from Microsoft Office and related programs, I also have virtually no other programs.
Windows Vista itself is now using over 16GB and with the restore this has used all the memory available. In summary, I am unable to load any more updates to Vista as there is no memory available. As a result, I cannot load the new service pack (so far the MS update has loaded over 350 updates).
My machine is now not happy and seems to risk turning into a very expensive lump of useless plastic.
I need help quickly!
Eur Ing Crispin Vincenti-Brown CEng FIET (by email)
The problem with Vista, which many IT managers would attest to, is the footprint of the operating system once installed on your hard drive. 32GB is quite large for a solid-state drive, but compared to disc drives it is quite small. I can suggest one of two options:
Firstly, if you have the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) discs you received with your laptop and the installation discs for Microsoft Office, I recommend that you attempt a complete reinstall of your entire system. Then allow Windows to update itself again. Rather than attempt to install another 350 minor updates, it will most likely install only the main service packs (which are an amalgamation of all the smaller updates anyway). You ought to save a few gigabytes once this has been completed. However, there is always the possibility that the problem will reoccur in the future.
Another solution would be to install Windows 7. Now normally I wouldn't advise upgrading an operating system, but one of the main advantages of Windows 7 is that it does use less memory on your storage drive than Vista. But check first with the Microsoft website that your computer will be able to run Windows 7.
Slow motion video
Is there an affordable video camera that records good quality slow motion? I currently coach my kid's soccer team, and I would like to use it for post-match analysis.
Brian May (not that one), Anaheim, California (by email)
Earlier this year Casio introduced some new cameras, EX-FH20 and the EX-FC100, which both shoot movies at up to 1,000 frames per second. Both cameras take 9 megapixel photos, 720p video, and can shoot up to 30 shots per second at 6-MP resolution - very useful for burst shooting.
These cameras vary in price between $300 to $400 (approximately £200-£300) making them relatively cheap compared to other slow motion or burst photography cameras.