Monday, 15 December 2014

Asus Zenfone 5 LTE #ZentasticXmas

We've not had much luck with phones in our house recently and Ian has been struggling with a smashed screen on his for quite some time so, when the opportunity came along for him to have an early Christmas present with a brand new Asus Zenfone 5 LTE for review we grabbed it with both hands..

We know Asus, we've owned two of their laptops and always been really pleased with them, but neither of us had any clue that Asus made phones. I was definitely curious about how I would find this new piece of Asus kit.

Asus Zenfone 5 LTE #ZentasticXmas

Out of the box. First impressions always matter, I always look at how a phone looks and, while that isn't the main criteria for choosing a phone, it's always great to have one that looks the part. The Asus Zenfone 5 LTE certainly does that. It's a large phone with a 5 inch touchscreen. The back is gently curved with a matt black finish that feels really nice in the hand.The power button and volume controls have a pleasing textured finish which looks good too. All in all, it is a really good looking phone that got a few 'oooohs' when I took it to a blog event yesterday. .  First impressions - great.

Next, the interface. I'll hold my hands up, I'm a Windows Phone user so I tend to lose the plot a little when faced with Android and iOS devices. They just don't do what I want them to! I decided to come at the phone from the point of an unfamiliar user and found that it took me a little while to get used to the menu system. After around 48 hours of use I was starting to find it more intuitive and to understand more fully how the operating system works together. Result. Ian is a long term Android user so had no difficulty at all getting to grips with the Asus version of the interface. You'll find a fair few Asus programs bundled in with the operating system under their own Asus shortcut on your home screen. Some of these seem really interesting, I liked the  Auto Wizard which allows you to switch between different modes for phone use quickly and easily, depending on what you use your phone for most. Definitely worth exploring further. You'll also find the usual calendar, notes, calculator and dictionary menu here too, as well as your contacts under 'people'.

Asus Zenfone 5 LTE #ZentasticXmas

As it is an Android device there's also a Google menu and you click through with this to find Google+, Chrome, Drive, YouTube etc. This is quite a handy way of splitting the most used apps on the home screen and, of course you can add your own apps (like Instagram, for example) by holding down the app icon on the menu and pinning it to the start. Simple.

From the lock screen you can access your camera, calls and messages without actually having to unlock the screen fully. I liked this shortcut as, on my current phone I have to swipe to start doing anything. This cuts out that step. As on most phones you can access your notifications by swiping down from the menu bar at the top. I found that, sometimes, I got a 'Quick Settings' shortcut menu instead, I think this happens when you swipe down from the time on the menu bar, rather than the notifications icons but it can be easy to miss this when you're in a hurry. A small point to get used to though.

Calls are clear and easy to hear and network connection seems good. The LTE in the phone's name means that it uses 4G LTE which offers faster data speeds than 3G. I've noticed that it is quick to get online and I've found the interface generally quicker than my current phone. This was especially useful when trying to find Ian and the car in the rain yesterday using Google Maps to find an unfamiliar street in Manchester City Centre!

I've been using the camera a good deal and, as I use my phone to take so many photos, it's an important part of any phone for me. I think Asus have put a lot of thought into this mode with a low light mode and selfie mode set up. I wanted to love the low light mode but I found the LED flash a little intense and it bleached my photos. I think, with more time I will get used to the settings more and work this out but, when using it at the moment I have found myself taking a photo in low light mode then switching it off and taking it again. I actually think that the camera does OK in lower light without the flash, as this photo shows.

Asus Zenfone 5 LTE #ZentasticXmas

There are two cameras included, the main rear camera is 8MP and the forward facing is 2MP. Both perfectly adequate. Another nifty feature is the ability to press and hold your shutter and take multiple photos then choose to save the best examples. This is great when trying to photograph children. Auto focus is really good and I've found this much better than my current phone's version of this. A simple press on the screen gives crystal clear focus, especially in good light.

The Asus Zenfone 5 LTE is equipped with a function that I've not seen on a phone before - Glove Mode - that can be switched on and off from the aforementioned 'quick settings' menu. This allows you to operate your touchscreen while wearing gloves. We've all been in that position in the cold weather where you have to take your gloves off to use your phone, either that or you've had to buy touchscreen gloves (which are always dark and boring in my experience). Glove mode promises the ability to use your touchscreen without having to remove them. Genius. Does it work? Yes! I was very sceptical about this and was quite sure it would be gimmicky and ineffective. I decided to put it to the test with my thickest, woolliest gloves and...  it works! I found I had to apply slightly  more pressure than the usually quite whizzy touchscreen needed but not too much more. The phone was still responsive and easy to operate. A very clever feature and, while it's not a deal breaker as far as selecting a phone is concerned, it's a very good idea!

Asus Zenfone 5 LTE #ZentasticXmas

I think the Asus Zenfone 5 LTE is a great phone in it's price range. A quick Google reveals that it can be bought sim free for under £200 and I think that this would represent really good value for money. I think, based on usage so far, that it is an excellent, competitive phone in this price range.

Disclosure: We received this phone for review purposes. 

Friday, 12 December 2014

Little Tikes Touch and Go Racers

Little Tikes are a favourite brand in our house and we love their robust, bright and colourful toys. Their Cozy Coupe is an iconic toy and we have one in our garden like so many other families. I was less familiar with their range of small toys, however, so, when the opportunity came to take a look at their Touch and Go Racers I was keen to see what Bud and LM would make of them.

Little Tikes Touch and Go Racers

The Touch and Go Racers are a range of four chunky cars, including a police car, red pick up truck green sports car and a blue sports car. They are all battery powered and have an on/off switch underneath. Very handy for saving battery juice The cars can be operated using the two clearly marked stickers, one on the back of the car and one on the bonnet.

Little Tikes Touch and Go Racers

First your child drags their finger along the 'rev up' sticker at the back of the vehicle (it is clearly marked 'rev up'), the first time they touch it the engine and horn sounds will start, touch it again and the sounds get louder. To make the car go press the 'Go' sticker on the front of the car and it will zoom away from you at a good speed. Very simple and both of my children understood how to make the cars go very quickly.

Little Tikes Touch and Go Racers

Bud, at 4 and a half enjoyed using the cars but found them a little simple to keep his interest. LM, however, at just over 2 loved them. As soon as she understood how to use the cars she was very excited at how quickly they zoomed away from her and happily spent time playing with them. They are aimed at age 2+ so I think that's a perfectly appropiate age for these, younger children would probably struggle to make them go on their own.

Little Tikes Touch and Go Racers

The cars have the customary Little Tikes quality, they are robust and will stand up to driving into the odd door or skirting board without any difficulty. They are quite a noisy toy but no more so than other toy cars that we own which have their own sounds.

Little Tikes Touch and Go Racers

We've had other toy cars which have felt quite flimsy and I always look at the wheels as a sign of quality. I was really pleased to see that the tyres on these cars are not removable and will stand up to a toddler chewing on them, if yours do that!

The cars retail at around £12:99 which I think is a reasonable amount for a solidly built, good quality, fun toy.

Disclosure: We received these toys for review purposes.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Cosatto Spring/Summer 2015 Preview

One of the advantages I sometimes have as a blogger is the opportunity to get a sneak peek at new products before anyone else and, when it's one of my favourite brands giving me the chance, it's even more exciting! I've been privileged to visit Cosatto's wonderful showroom a few times now and it's always a treat to see just what they have come up with to help 'save the world from boring baby stuff' each time.

A couple of weeks ago I headed over to Cosatto HQ to see what will be on offer from them next year. The Spring/Summer preview showcases the products that will be on offer in the coming six months or so. There are some amazing new prints and patterns, and a few exciting new products to display them.

First up, the Giggle has been new and improved and is now the Giggle 2. The Giggle 2 has an improved system for attaching the car seat, carrycot and seat, four recline positions and compatibility with the Hold car seat. Stability has been improved and the front housing is now steel reinforced. The Hold car seat also includes it's own raincover too. There are four new designs for the Giggle 2, bringing the choice up to eleven in total. The new designs are: Flamingo Fling, Firebird, Hipstar and Pitter Patter.

Cosatto Giggle 2 Flamingo Fling

Flamingo Fling is a gorgeous new girly print with pink flamingos on a dark background with mint green accents. I'm not the biggest pink fan but the green really adds something extra. I can see this being extremely popular with little girls and their mummies next year. You can see this print on the Supa, Moova, Zoomi and Hootle car seats and the Noodle Supa Highchair.

Cosatto Giggle 2 Pitter Patter

Pitter Patter can also be seen across the range and this features brightly coloured rain drops on a navy blue background, with yellow/green chassis on the Giggle. I think Pitter Patter will brighten up even the rainiest of British weather. This print also features on the Hootle Car Seat and Waffle Highchair (more on that later).


Cosatto Supa Hipstar

The third new Giggle 2 (and matching Hold car seat of course, this is available for all of the Giggle 2 travel systems) is Hipstar. Hipstar is an updated version of the All Star with a cooler, more urban palette featuring charcoal grey and bright red, with graffiti-style stars all over it. This wasn't a favourite of mine but some of me fellow bloggers, like Mrs Shilts, were very taken with it. Hiipstar can be seen on the Supa and the Hug car seat too.

Cosatto Supa Freebird

Finally Firebird. This reminded me a little of the Treet design from previous seasons but it's been updated with a new muted colour palette of grey, green and turquoise. Printed with trees it's the perfect design for those wanting a more nature-themed colour scheme. Firebird can also be seen on the Supa and the Moova.

There's a brand new Supa which replaces the oh-so-popular Foxtrot. Raccoon Riot is the supa (sorry!) cute character who I'm sure will be incredibly popular on this fantastic pushchair that was recently awarded the Mother and Baby Gold Award.

Cosatto Supa Raccoon Riot

Next up is a brand new Ooba. I love this elegant and stylish travel system and the new design - Charleston - sees a departure from the leatherette finish of the Kimono and Duck Egg. Charleston is a striking black and white design with black and white chassis and black wheels. It's going to be a show stopper I think.


Cosatto Ooba Charleston

We were introduced to a brand new highchair which was one of my favourite products of the day. The Waffle is suitable for children from six months up to age 11 and it folds! It's a wooden highchair with a metal leg which allows it to be folded and tucked away in your kitchen. It adjusts as your child grows and allows them to sit with the family at the table. I think this will be a real competitor in the highchair market and very popular with parents. It will be available in Pitter Patter and Strudel.

Cosatto Waffle Pitter Patter

I think my favourite of the day may have been the brand new Story cot bed. I fell in love with the Babushka design when I saw it last year but the brand new owl design is truly beautiful. LM has a mint green and pink nursery and this would match it perfectly. This beautiful mint green design would work well for boys or girls and is perfect for parents looking for a more muted colour palette in the nursery.

Cosatto Story

I thoroughly enjoyed my day at Cosatto, as always. It's great to see the new designs and chat to the staff behind them.

Cosatto have an exciting new website at www.cosatto.com which will feature a social hub, their blog and all of their exciting news. One lucky person who orders through the website before 1st January will win the cost of their order back so it's definitely time to look if you're planning a new purchase (terms and conditions apply, see website for details). You can, of course, keep up to date with them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you're out and about with your little ones in their Cosatto, post photos using #MyCosatto, the team love seeing them!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Christmas Fun in North West Wales - Festive Family Days Out

In addition to our wonderful stay at Seinot Manor we had lots of fun activities planned for our festive weekend in Wales. We were invited by Attraactions of Snowdonia to three of their places to visit in North Wales and I'm going to share what we thought of Bodnant Garden, Bodnant Welsh Food and the GreenWood Forest Park.

The first place on our itinerary was Bodnant Garden which we visited on Saturday morning. This National Trust property is a large garden situated in the Conwy valley. Spanning more than 80 acres, it's a beautiful site which is packed with fascinating plants and trees to explore. We were there to participate in an Elves Workshop and enjoyed a leisurely walk through the gardens to reach the old mill where the workshop was taking place.

Bodnant Garden

The garden is very beautiful. I was expecting it to be rather barren at this time of year but I was surprised by just how much colour the garden had, there were a number of winter blooms and the remains of autumn foliage. Bud loved looking for conkers and pine cones and kept saying 'it's very beautiful Mummy'. The garden has a wheelchair (and pushchair) friendly route but, as LM wanted to walk, we chose to take the steps a lot of the time. This really allowed us to see the layout of the garden and the terraces in the valley it is arranged over.

Bodnant Garden

We arrived at the Elves Workshop in time for the 11am session. These can be booked at the Ticket Office at the main entrance. Bud and LM were shown how to make a Christmas tree and a snowman and both of them really enjoyed getting crafty with the elves. Said elves were part of the volunteers at the Garden and it was clear to see their enthusiasm and love for it. When we left we had our crafts popped into a little bag and received a pack of reindeer food and an invitation to go and see Santa at the Bodnant Garden Centre.

Bodnant Garden Elves Workshop

After a quiet wander back through the garden we had a look around the Garden Centre and Craft Centre, which are located around the entrance to the main garden  The Craft Centre had a demonstration of glass bead making from the lovely lady behind MidasTouch Jewels who was incredibly patient with Bud, inviting him to choose the colours for a bead and wear her safety goggles while we watched her create a glass bead. It was a real highlight of the day for him and he was telling everyone about it later.

Santa at Bodnant Garden Centre Father Christmas

Our time at Bodnant Garden was completed by a trip to see Father Christmas in the Garden Centre. Children can visit the grotto in exchange for a small donation to a local children's charity and both Bud and LM enjoyed their visit. They had a sleigh outside the grotto that the children were really happy to sit in too.

The second part of our day saw us visiting Bodnant Welsh Food, a short drive away. This is actually situated on the same estate as Bodnant Garden and opened in 2012 following the renovation of a derelict farm house and it's buildings. The results are impressive and now include a large farm shop, tea room, restaurant, wine shop and ice cream bar now available to visitors.

Bodnant Welsh Food

Upon arrival we were met by the General Manager who took us on a comprehensive tour of the site. We started in the Cookery School, a fabulous facility where people can book onto classes with some of Wales' top chefs. It's an amazing, custom designed facility, I would love to have been able to cook there. From there we saw the beautiful Hayloft Restaurant.  It's a beautiful setting and was bustling with people both dining and enjoying a drink in the elegant bar area. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner and prides itself on serving the best Welsh produce.

Bodnant Welsh Food

From there we made our way into the beautiful, five star, bed and breakfast accommodation. We weren't able to see the bedrooms as they were fully booked but there is shared living accommodation, including a kitchenette which allows guests to create their own meals and is stocked with the basics from the excellent shop. Breakfast is included and is served in the Hayloft Restaurant. The accommodation is situated in the old farmhouse and looked absolutely lovely, I'd love to stay there sometime.

We were able to take a peek inside the dairy, they make award winning cheeses on site, using milk from just across the valley. The cheeses have to be turned every day and that's the job of two of the dairymen every morning. We were able to sample a few of the cheeses in the farm shop and I can definitely understand the awards.

Bodnant Welsh Food

Bodnant has an excellent wine shop, well stocked with wine from Wales and across the globe. It's displayed according to type of wine and we had a very enjoyable chat with the owner. He was so passionate about wines, I was rather gutted that my pregnancy precluded me from sampling some of his stock.

From there we headed into the courtyard to take a look at the Christmas market, which is taking place throughout December. This has a wide range of gift ideas and Bud was delighted to spot one of his favourites, Tractor Ted, on offer! Bud and LM spotted a certain man in red in the Tea Room and got a bit excited so we headed over to see Father Christmas once again (small charge applies, weekends only). Santa and his elves were very friendly and both children were very pleased with their reindeer food and chocolate lollipop.

Bodnant Welsh Food

Our day was completed with a tour of the farm shop. This is packed with local produce, including the aforementioned cheeses, They butcher all of their own meat on site and we had an informative chat with the Head Butcher about the importance of traceability in meat, at Bodnant they even have chalkboards which tell you where the various types of meat have been supplied from that day. As the meat is butchered there it means little waste with meat going in to the pies and ready meals made there too.

The final destination on our tour made Bud very happy. An enormous ice cream cone from the ice cream parlour! All of the ice creams are made on site and Bud enjoyed Strawberry while LM loved her Milk & Honey cone (with honey from estate bees). There's an informative little exhibition on bees and honey right next door to the ice cream parlour too. Our last visit was to the small adventure playground where Bud and LM loved the chance to play for a while.

Bodnant Welsh Food

We loved our afternoon at Bodnant Welsh Food, it felt so festive with the Christmas market and the visit to Father Christmas and we left with a few treats to fuel us for our journey back to the hotel and evening in our suite. The staff are justifiably proud of the awards and achievements of the last two years and I can see them going from strength to strength in the future. It was a fascinating place to visit. I'd definitely recommend checking it out if you are in the area.

On Sunday, our third and final visit of the weekend took us to the GreenWood Forest Park, which was a few miles from our hotel. This is one of North Wales' most highly rated family attractions. It's currently on Winter opening hours which means that the Enchanted play barn, shop and cafe are open to visitors (with reduced admission charges as a result). It was the perfect place to visit on a Sunday morning as the play barn wasn't too busy. For the Christmas period they have a Santa's Grotto in the gift shop. We didn't visit though as we saw Father Christmas twice the day before. I did speak to one family who had been to see him though and they were pleased with their gifts and the experience.

Greenwood Forest Park Winter Opening Enchanted Playbarn

Bud and LM loved being able to rampage all over the play barn. They have a small section for under 3s which LM enjoyed but she was soon climbing all over the main part of the barn with her brother and Daddy too. We don't often visit soft play so they both really enjoyed the opportunity to let off steam before travelling home.

I can heartily recommend the cafe, I had a lovely cappucino and then a spiced apple juice. We didn't order food but others around us did and it was very well presented and reasonably priced. There was a birthday party on when we were there and they had access to a large room for their food and games. It seemed very well organised. For parents there is a lovely (and very well protected) log burner and free WiFi.

Greenwood Forest Park Winter Opening Enchanted Playbarn

During the Winter adults go to the Play Barn free and children (up to 140cm tall) are £4:20. Visits to Santa are £7:50 which includes admission to the Play Barn and a gift.

The park looks like a wonderful place to visit in warmer months. My friend Anna visited with her family last year and had a wonderful time exploring the various attractions.. To find out what she and her boys thought see  GreenWood Forest Park at In the Playroom. I definitely think we might have to plan a return visit in the Summer.

We had a wonderful weekend in North West Wales and loved the opportunity to see what festive options are available. It was the perfect way to enjoy time together as a family and we had a fantastic, relaxing time. For more information on the attractions and events in North Wales check out Attractions of Snowdonia.

Disclosure: We visited the attractions as their guests.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christmas Fun in North West Wales - Seiont Manor Hotel

Last weekend we headed off for a festive break in North West Wales. We love to try and get away at this time of year and it's great to take time out of the hectic pre-Christmas rush to enjoy time together as a family. We headed off for Snowdonia on Friday afternoon, straight from school for the start of  a weekend adventure.

Seinot Manor Hotel, North Wales

First up, the hotel. We were booked in to the Seiont Manor hotel, part of the Handpicked Hotels group, which is situated in between Caernarfon and Llanberis. It's a beautiful country house hotel which we were really looking forward to seeing. From the moment we arrived to our departure on the Sunday we were treated wonderfully and nothing was too much trouble for the fabulous staff on duty. They were all so patient with the children, especially Bud's endless chat. The hotel only has 28 bedrooms so it's quite small compared to some we have stayed in but this made it very personal and the staff really get to know guests over the course of their stay.

Seinot Manor Hotel, North Wales

We stayed on a bed and breakfast basis and breakfasts were definitely a highlight. Helen, who ran the dining room incredibly efficiently, deserves particular mention. She was so lovely with the children and Bud was so pleased to see her on the second morning. Often in hotels eating with other guests when you have small children can be a daunting prospect but she put us completely at our ease. The breakfast spread was expansive, and catered to every taste. It included local produce like Bara Brith and Welshcakes, local cheeses and hand carved ham, as well as the usual cereals, fruit and pastries. Hot breakfasts were served at your table and included a wide range of options. Ian enjoyed a full Welsh breakfast on both days while I chose the Vegetarian breakfast on Saturday and a Mushroom Omelette on the Sunday. I just wish I'd been able to eat more of it!

Seinot Manor Hotel, North Wales

The hotel has it's own gym, 40 metre swimming pool and jogging route so lots of ways to keep fit. On the Saturday afternoon we arrived back at the hotel in plenty of time to take advantage of the pool and the children loved having the chance to have a swim. The pool was warm and welcoming, although it isn't manned so parents should, of course be vigilant.

Seinot Manor Hotel, North Wales

We were staying in a Junior Suite. which was a really spacious room, perfect for a family to share. The room contained a large double bed, a double sofa bed and an additional temporary single, as we're a family of four, even with this the room didn't feel at all cramped. The bathroom was spacious and it was lovely to relax in the bath after the children were asleep. There are lots of nice little touches, like the free WiFi, DVD Player in the room (with DVD library available at reception) and cartons of orange juice left in the room for the children.

It was clear from our stay that many of the guests of the hotel were returning visitors and it's really clear to see why. We'd definitely love to go back. I can wholeheartedly recommend a stay at Seiont Manor for a relaxing, luxurious stay in a beautiful setting.

To find out about the places we visited on our weekend away please see my post - Christmas Fun in North West Wales - Festive Family Days Out, featuring Bodnant Garden, Bodnant Welsh Food and GreenWood Forest Park.

Disclosure: We stayed at the hotel as guests of Attractions of Snowdonia.
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