Digital Life: Hallelujah Netflix -- the stream machine works like a dream
For once, you don't need to pay me any heed. The usual deal here is that companies lend me their expensive bits of kit to review in the hope of getting some coverage while running the risk of snarky commentary. At the very least this column might prevent you, the reader, from buying a costly lemon.
But online TV company Netflix has effectively made me redundant (thanks, guys) by offering a free trial of its new streaming movie service. Not just a week or a fortnight -- but a whole month's worth of all-you-can-eat free films and TV.
Now you can make your own mind up and cut out the middleman (me).
However, if you can't be bothered going through the incredibly simple sign-up process (name and credit card, that's it), please stick with me while everyone else rushes off to their computer (or tablet or phone, etc).
Let's start by establishing what Netflix isn't. It doesn't replace your Sky/UPC subscription. It won't kill video stores like Xtra-vision (not yet). And it ain't worth a damn if your broadband is dodgy (such as from those mobile dongle thingies).
Instead, Netflix is more about catching up with many of those movies and TV shows you've always been meaning to watch.
The catalogue isn't extensive and hardly bang up to date but Netflix reckons it has "tens of thousands of hours of programming" on tap.
It fares brilliantly in some categories (13 full seasons of Top Gear, four of The IT Crowd), includes movie blockbusters as recent as 2010 and kicks the ass of the paltry selection in your local video store.
But there are maddening gaps (eg, no Casablanca, no Shawshank Redemption), forget about the latest films or anything specifically Irish and try to ignore the acres of straight-to-DVD filler.
It's also a shame there's no wish list to keep track of things you've found and would watch in the future. But Netflix's recommendation engine at least has the smarts to highlight plenty of worthy stuff you'd never have known about (based on your preferences and viewing history).
The clincher, though, is the price. Netflix has no mainstream competition in Ireland for this kind of all-you-can-eat streaming TV (check out Mubi and Volta for more left-field options). Yet for just €7 a month, Netflix lets you fill your boots full of entertainment, on platforms including computer, iPad, iPhone, Android, Xbox, PS3 and Wii.
If your broadband is up to it, Netflix's contract-free offer is too good to resist. But don't take my word for it, try the free trial.
MARIO KART 7
'Don't rock the boat' was the motto on Nintendo's latest evolution of its wildly popular kart racing series, whose sales figures have landed it in the Guinness Book of Records.
Nintendo's celebrated designer Shigeru Miyamoto even went so far as to say in a recent interview: "The basic message here is 'Mario Kart's been powered up for the Nintendo 3DS'."
But even if MK7 is intended only to bolster struggling sales of the 3DS, it's a brilliant stop-gap.
The core gameplay still stands up beautifully after 20 years -- a riotous mix of drift racing and comic weaponry (spiny shells delight and infuriate in equal measure).
But on top of this newly crisp landscape, Nintendo has layered a much better online multi-player, kart customisation options and fresh tricks such as flying and underwater segments.
The tracks may be a little familiar but still teem with alternative routes that open up new strategies (eg, stay up in the air to avoid the competitive carnage below).
The 3D effect is so subtle as to be pointless, but it's the one bum note in an otherwise virtuoso performance from an old friend.
This is also resurrection week for Rayman, his old 2D-self exhumed from the vaults of 1995.
But it's not quite how we remember him as a vague shape roaming blurry scenery.
Instead, his platforming playground has become a gorgeous high-res world, sharp and busy as a cartoon. Every frame of this 2D side-scroller is packed with lovingly drawn detail, its parallax layers adding depth to each scene.
The gameplay feels more conventional -- old-school platforming requiring precision jumps and a careful eye for hidden paths. But thanks to inventive and witty level design plus a gradual unlocking of new abilities (gliding and shrinking, for instance), it never gets stale.
HORRID HENRY: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE BUGLY
Also known as Horrid Henry: The Bad, The Worse and the Indefensible.
In attempting to plagiarise the Super Mario platform games, Horrid Henry fails to capture the fun, clever design and amusing visuals of Nintendo's classic.
Though obviously intended for a young audience, HH has no excuse for its muddy graphics, flawed mechanics and boring gameplay.
Bits and Bytes
> Apple's ban on Flash video for iPhones and iPads is a right pain, especially for catch-up TV services. But RTÉ has finally made an app out of the RTÉ Player so now you can watch EastEnders, the Late Late and Raw wherever you go.
The full range of catch-up TV is available on the app but, as on desktop computers, you can also watch live TV for any programmes for which RTE has the rights.
The RTÉ Player app, which works over 3G as well as WiFi, can be found at the iTunes App Store.
> You may not have realised that calling numbers such as 1850 and 1890 cost you money, even if you have free bundled minutes on your landline or mobile. But most companies using 1850 have an alternative number that they don't widely advertise.
These conventional landline numbers are hard to find unless you use a free service such as saynoto1850.com, which lists hundreds of numbers for companies in Ireland.
These numbers can be called for free via your bundled minutes or at the very least will often cost less than using 1850.