Top 10 best Usenet services of 2017

You might think, given that most ISPs no longer provide direct access to it and the majority of the free providers online have disappeared, that the venerable Usenet service has died a death. But that’s not entirely true; there are still many active discussion areas in the bigger groups.

But let’s be realistic: the real reason to lean towards Usenet in the current age is for file sharing – the groups below alt.binaries.* are very active, carrying many downloadable files of all kinds. But to gain access to the large amount of Usenet bandwidth you’ll need in order to collect these files, you’ll have to pay.

The key if you’re looking at binary newsgroups is, due to Usenet’s distributed server architecture, in finding a provider whose servers are fast, and who retains copies of binary files uploaded to Usenet for as long as possible. Here’s our breakdown of the best providers, and a couple of wildcards for those still interested in the talky side of Usenet.

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    GigaNews is amongst the most expensive Usenet providers, but its price reflects the sum of its parts. Alongside access to newsgroups – naturally – a $24.99 (£19.30) per month Diamond subscription gets you the use of GigaNews’ own Mimo Usenet browser and search engine, SSL access to its servers, and the pro version of Golden Frog’s multi-faceted VyprVPN service. Whatever you’re using it for – and even if you’re doing something else online entirely – the extra layer of privacy offered by a quality VPN has to be reassuring.

    GigaNews’ server availability is another plus, with multiple redundancy on US and EU servers owned and run by the company itself, and over 2,350 days retention of files. The real question, however, is whether you plan to use all of the features GigaNews offers. If you’re looking to Usenet access for the conversations this is absolutely overkill, and for binary downloads it’s still rather expensive.

    Price: From $4.99 (£3.85) per month

    2. Altopia

    Now over 20 years old, Altopia is probably the longest-running uncensored Usenet provider in the world. That is, indeed, its main selling point: Altopia was created after its founder, working as a system administrator at a university, was ordered to prevent student access to groups of a controversial nature, a move he considered ‘silly and unacademic’. With this in mind Seattle-based Altopia will do everything it can to keep your communications unmonitored and unaltered, though it does of course operate within the confines of the law.

    While Altopia doesn’t offer the deepest retention – at the time of writing it stores 550 days of text posts, single binaries and sub-15-part binaries, and just 9 days of binaries consisting of over 15 parts – it does offer the simplest subscription packages. Everyone gets unlimited speeds, unlimited transfers and SSL connectivity, the only variable is the number of simultaneous connections. $6 (£4.60) per month gets you two, and that rises to $18 (£13.90) for 20.

    Price: From $6 (£4.60) per month

    3. Astraweb

    Astraweb is another of Usenet’s big mainstays, having run since 1998. Sign up and you’re actually gaining access to two distinct services – its download servers in the US and the Netherlands are run as separate companies, and one server may contain files that the other does not. Essentially Astraweb gives you a main server and a backup server for the price of one.

    Users have reported that its quality has declined over the years. Whether or not you believe this is up to you, but Astraweb’s longevity in the market does earn it some brownie points, and it does not resell its services meaning you should see a consistent download rate from its servers.

    Retention is one of the highest we’ve seen at over 2,900 days, with a claimed 99% availability. Seeing as the 1% that’s missing could be the one critical part of a binary you need, Astraweb – even with its dual servers – is probably best used with a block account on hand.

    Price: From $10 (£7.70) per month

    4. BlockNews

    Block accounts are, depending on your Usenet provider, potentially something of a necessity. They’re a lot like unlimited accounts, but instead offer limited transfer rates, meaning they’re not supposed to be used as the primary method of downloading but as a backup.

    Plug the credentials of your block account into your newsgroup download package as a backup and, if your main provider is missing a part of a binary file, it’ll download it from there instead. Each provider tends to remove a different component of a binary when asked, so the chances are your download will complete.

    BlockNews’ promise to offer non-expiring accounts is a key selling point. You may never need to use its facilities, but small-volume accounts are cheap enough (from $2.75/£2.12 for 5GB) that they’re a reasonable backup, and everything is SSL secured and there’s a 2,600 day retention. You could, in theory, pick up a larger volume account and use it as your main download source, but if you tend to collect a lot of binaries the costs could add up fast.

    Price: From $2.75 (£2.12) for 5GB

    5. NewsDemon

    Resellers are quite common in the Usenet world, and for good reason: by purchasing a large amount of bandwidth from a major service provider, they can negotiate better terms and sell on that access to you for a vastly discounted rate. One of the biggest providers to resellers is HighWinds, which counts nearly 30 clients operating from its vast server backbone.

    HighWinds reseller NewsDemon is our pick of the bunch, offering 50 simultaneous connections and unlimited SSL-secured transfers from European and US servers for an entirely reasonable £9.17 ($11.80) per month – or perhaps less, we’ve seen different prices listed during different visits. There are also block accounts available.

    There’s the bonus of a VPN connection if you’re willing to spend a bit more, or transfer-capped block accounts for a little less. If you’re employed in education, charitable work, or certain media outlets NewsDemon will even offer you free access – though in the interests of disclosure we should be clear that we’ve not taken advantage of this offer.

    Price: From £1.80 ($2.30) for 10GB

    6. Usenet.Farm

    Dutch company Usenet.Farm is a relative newcomer to the scene, but it’s making waves with its structure and policies. On the first count, the company runs its own servers with around 60 days retention – not outrageously impressive, but if Usenet.Farm doesn’t have the part of a file you’re looking for it’ll try to find it on Highwinds’ backend, and then on the XSNews backend. This improves the possibility of getting a complete binary, particularly a recently uploaded one.

    On the second count, you can sign up for a Usenet.Farm account giving no personal information other than your name, or even skip this step if you use Bitcoin to pay. It offers 50-connection unlimited accounts (€7.95/£6.85/$8.90 per month), block accounts, SSL connectivity, and the ability to upload your own Usenet posts on both types of account.

    At the time of writing, there’s even an innovative summer sale running, with a percentage discount based on the temperature in Amsterdam – sign up on a hot day and you could bag yourself a bargain.

    Price: From €4.95 (£4.25, $5.50) per month

    7. UsenetBucket

    Highly recommended by much of the Usenet community, UsenetBucket is a reseller based off the XSNews backend running from the Netherlands. If offers around 1,100 days retention which, compared to some, sounds rather pathetic – but that’s about three years’ worth of files. We’d wager you’ll be able to count the number of times you’ll try to download something beyond a week old on one hand anyway.

    There’s SSL access, and a few options in terms of packages. The €12.95 (£11.20, $14.50) per month Ultimate Bucket account offers unlimited traffic and 50 simultaneous connections at a maximum speed of 400 Mbit/sec and is great to use as a primary account.

    On the other hand, the 10 Mbit/sec, 25-connection Basic Bucket – which definitely isn’t something you’d buy at KFC, and which still offers unlimited traffic – is perfect as a backup account at just €2.95 (£2.55, $3.30) per month.

    Price: From €2.95 (£2.55, $3.30) per month

    8. Google Groups

    Best used for historical research more than anything else, Google Groups holds a vast, searchable archive of text posts from the early days of Usenet and what appears to be very little from the more recent past. Its retention seems to be rather variable, with huge gaps in certain groups but others are well-served.

    Perhaps, though, an archive is where Google Groups is best placed anyway. The text portion of Usenet, marred by the obvious difficulty there is in now accessing it and the fact that more effective communication tech is now available for free on the web, sputtered to something of a halt around a decade ago.

    Don’t misunderstand: there are still active groups, particularly for niche subjects that have long stationed themselves there. But most are full of spam and trolls. Realistically you’re better off heading to Reddit or similar sites if you’re looking for likeminded, moderated discussion.

    Price: Free

    9. XS4All Newszilla

    Another text-only provider, but one available for free and without subscription, Dutch provider XS4All – a name you may recognise from the web’s early days – offers free connection to text based newsgroups for anyone with the appropriate software. Just plug in the server’s address and port (, port 113) to a package like Opera Mail, and you can browse groups, download headers, and read and post messages.

    If you want binaries you’ll be out of luck here. There’s no SSL so your traffic will be unencrypted, which means you’ll need to be on your best behaviour. Retention is unstated, and there’s no telling what will be done with your usage data. Paranoid individuals look elsewhere. But – for an experimental tool useful to browse text groups the way it’s supposed to be done, XS4All has given us a great gift with Newszilla.

    Price: Free

    10. NZBMegasearcH

    We’re going to finish this list with a service-aggregator of sorts. If you’re hunting for something on Usenet, the best way to find it – and pretty much the only way, to be realistic – is to make use of an NZB indexer. These scour the headers of Usenet posts to collect all necessary parts of the binary files you’re looking for. They tend to exist rather fleetingly – they’re so flimsy that we’re not even going to recommend a particular search source in this article because it may already be gone by the time you read this.

    While most NZB indexers make use of the same backend software, differing server sources and indexing protocols mean they can turn up some very different results. NZBMegasearcH (that capital H is a correct, if annoying, part of its name) is installable software, and it doesn’t discriminate – if you have access to an NZB search engine you can add your credentials and search multiple sources for the files you need.

    Price: Free


New LG gram laptops bulk up on battery life but remain ultra-light

LG has announced the availability of a trio of new featherweight LG gram laptops. Each size comes in two different variations, all of which promise much improved battery life despite their thin-and-light nature.

The most compact notebook is the refreshed LG gram 13Z970, a 13.3-inch laptop which weighs just 2.07 pounds (a smidge under 940g).

The hardware consists of an Intel Core i5 processor (Kaby Lake) backed with 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage, with two variants: one model has a non-touch IPS Full HD display, while the other has a touchscreen and fingerprint sensor.

(All of these machines have a Full HD resolution and Kaby Lake CPUs, by the way.)

Battery life is 17.5 hours on the former and 15 hours for the touchscreen version, with pricing set at $999 (around £800, AU$1,300) and $1,099 (around £880, AU$1,430) respectively.

Moving on up, the LG gram 14Z970 is a 14-inch machine which again has two different models. One sports an Intel Core i5 CPU and the other ups the ante to a Core i7, and that’s the only difference.

Both models have 8GB of system RAM and 256GB of storage along with a touchscreen. They offer 14.5 hours of juice and weigh in at 2.14 pounds (970g). The Core i5 machine retails at $1,199 (around £960, AU$1,560), with the beefier i7 version pitched at $1,499 (around £1,200, AU$1,950).

The 13-inch and 14-inch gram laptops look a bit different from the largest one

More memory, more storage, more screen

Finally, we have the 15.6-inch LG gram 15Z970, which has a weight of 2.4 pounds (1.09kg).

The base version of this laptop has an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage, with a non-touch display. Or you can opt for the Core i7 model, which doubles up the memory and storage (16GB/512GB) – plus it adds a touchscreen.

Battery life is 15.2 hours for the former and 12.5 hours for the beefier model, and pricing is $1,199 (around £960, AU$1,560) and $1,699 (around £1,360, AU$2,210) respectively.

Other noteworthy points across all models include the presence of a USB-C port, a backlit keyboard, and a “daylight mode” to make the screen brighter and more easily visible outside – though, the latter isn’t present on the largest model.

You can purchase these notebooks at retailers across the US right now, including the likes of Amazon, Fry’s, B&H, Microcenter and Costco. However, we’re awaiting information on availability in the UK and Australia, and will update this story once we hear back.

  • Will the new LG gram make it onto our 15 best laptops list?


Download of the day: Genie Timeline Free

Genie Timeline Free

We know, we know. Backups are important but they’re just so boring, and there’s so much other stuff to do, and… argh, the hard disk has died and everything’s broken!

You never know when disaster will strike, so think of backups as a form of insurance: you’d rather not have to do it, but if trouble comes you’ll be glad you were prepared. The more important your data, the more important your backups become: imagine if you were to lose your family photos, your home videos or the photos you’re going to use to blackmail local politicians.

Why you need it

The world is a dangerous place for data. Viruses can trash it, villains can steal it, and hard disks can commit hara-kiri, dooming your most valuable files.

What you really need is a simple backup tool that can make smart suggestions about what to back up, when and were. Genie Timeline Free isn’t the most comprehensive backup tool around – it can’t create drive images or rescue media to restore entire systems – but if you want an easy and effective backup tool it’s well worth downloading.

The interface is nice and straightforward, and it makes good use of wizards to guide you through the process of protecting the things that really matter.

Download here: Genie Timeline Free


The 10 best laptops for students in 2017: the best laptops for college, high school and more

best laptops for students

Update: Replacing the Lenovo IdeaPad Y700 in the process, we’ve gone ahead and added one of the most affordable (and outwardly subdued) gaming laptops on the market. Read on to find out more about the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming at number 6!

The beginning of a new semester means not only getting in the habit of waking up early for those dreaded 8 am classes, but it also marks the best time to upgrade your laptop. After all, if you’re clinging to a weathered workhorse that shudders at the thought of 4K photo editing, it’s time to move forward.

Even if you’re spending the whole day in a classroom, accessories such as the Razer Power Bank are making sure that whatever laptop you’re using, you don’t need to worry about it going dead. For that reason, if the potential for malware is scaring you off from a Mac, there’s no reason to fret that Apple’s offerings are the only options that last all day.

Meanwhile, companies like Microsoft (and, soon, possibly Samsung) are making an active effort to bring prominence to 2-in-1 laptops that double as both tablets and more traditional notebooks, physical keyboards and all. So in spite of the keyboard concerns surrounding the MacBook Pro, there is still quite the range of options to choose from.

As such, we’ve arranged a list of the best laptops for students, conveniently at your disposal below.

Packing a high-resolution screen and serious processing power, there’s more to the Dell XPS 13 than being a surprisingly small Ultrabook. Now featuring new processors and better integrated graphics, clearly the main advantage of buying the newest Dell XPS 13 is that it comes in Rose Gold.

There’s a 13-inch display crammed into an 11-inch body, a worthy rival to a certain other aluminum laptop line, and what’s more, the Dell XPS 13 is perfect for any basic course work scenario. After all, Apple doesn’t make the only premium, general use laptop worth batting an eye at, and the Dell XPS 13 is the proof.

Read the full review: Dell XPS 13 review

best laptops for students

Call it a MacBook Air knockoff if you want, but the Asus ZenBook UX305 is one of the best Ultrabooks you can buy at the moment considering the low price-point. With a full HD screen, a whole 8GB of RAM and up to 512GB of SSD storage, the Asus ZenBook UX305 is a steal.

Like the Dell XPS 13 listed below, this is further proof that you can find a truly primo, general use laptop for less than a thousand bucks. The ZenBook UX305 is an honest-to-goodness laptop, presented in an attractive package, that takes home the gold when it comes to exhibiting the basics.

Read the full review: Zenbook UX305

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

A higher resolution screen, a thinner design and a move to Intel’s more powerful Skylake processors all help to make this portable tablet a capable substitute for your other computing hardware.

What you get is one of the few tablets we can say for certain can replace your laptop. Luckily, with Windows 10, it serves as a great companion device, too. Sadly, the Type Cover keyboard is still an optional necessity for this laptop replacement.

Read the full review: Microsoft Surface Pro 4

best laptops for students

For less than a grand, you could get a MacBook Air, complete with a sub-1080p screen and a Broadwell processor or you could buy a Samsung Notebook 7 Spin. A 2-in-1 laptop with an HDR-enabled, Full HD touchscreen, the Spin boasts both a discrete Nvidia graphics chip and one of the latest Intel CPUs.

Considering the sheer horsepower you can exert from this thing and – we can’t stress this enough – an HDR screen, the Samsung Notebook 7 Spin is perfect for the classroom or the dorm. Sure, it uses an old-school hard drive and a standard-def webcam, but at the same time, but few concessions are made to keep the price down and its value up.

Read the full review: Samsung Notebook 7 Spin

Acer Chromebook 15 C910

If you’re convinced that every Chromebook on the market has to be less than 14 inches, you’d be dead wrong. The Acer Chrombook 15, for example, boasts not only a whopping 15.6-inch screen, but it also packs an equally impressive range of processors.

Despite some slight discomfort experienced during prolonged use, but you can snatch the Acer Chromebook 15 at a much cheaper price now than when it originally released, making it well worth the sacrifice.

Read the full review: Acer Chromebook 15 C910

While a gaming laptop might sound like the best fit for a student hoping to grind away at the next Mass Effect as much as their homework, they’re usually wicked expensive and the battery life is often on the short end. Luckily, there isn’t much Dell hasn’t thought of and, ditching the Alienware moniker altogether, the Inspiron 15 Gaming is a prime example of budget PC gaming done right.

For the price, you wouldn’t even be able to afford a MacBook Air, and this is a laptop that can handle practically every game you throw at it, albeit not at the highest settings. And, if you were worried about the battery life, we’ll have you know that in our PCMark 8 battery life benchmark, the Inspiron 15 Gaming lasted a whole 5 hours and 51 minutes, longer than some Ultrabooks that cost even more.

Read the full review: Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming

best laptops for students

It’s not much in terms of specs, but the Asus ZenBook Flip UX360 doesn’t need to be. For the price, it’s one of the better 2-in-1 laptops money can afford. It’s thin and light, packing in an all-day battery life and yet Asus was still courageous enough to keep all your favorite ports intact in addition to its signature 360-degree convertible mode.

Traditional PC users and newcomers alike will be delighted to find a pair of USB 3.0 ports accompanied by a microSD card reader and USB-C. The downside is a notable lack of full-size HDMI, opting instead for the antiquated micro HDMI. However, this laptop more than makes up for its faults with a spacious trackpad and keyboard as well as a processor more than capable of completing everyday tasks – just don’t go nuts with the browser tabs.

Read the full review: Asus ZenBook Flip UX360

best laptops for students

The HP Chromebook 14 is no performance powerhouse, sure, but thanks to the zippiness of Chrome OS combined with a funky blue case, this is one fun notebook to use.

Because of its low cost and ease of use, the HP Chromebook 14 is ideal for high school or liberal arts college students while simultaneously providing access to nearly every major service an undergrad would need to survive. It’s nothing fancy in terms of specs, but it is at the very least a sight for sore eyes.

Read the full review: HP Chromebook 14

Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (early 2015)

For students impressed by the sleek-and-alluring 12-inch MacBook, but unsatisfied by the lack of power and ports, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is an obvious solution. Featuring a lengthy battery life (7 hours and 24 minutes in our anecdotal battery test) and a powerful, full-fledged Intel Core i5 processor, the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro is replete with everything you need to get through the coming semesters.

Weighing in at only 3.02 pounds (1.37kg), the 13-inch MacBook Pro is lighter than ever before, thanks in part to its slimmed-down keyboard and covert cooling system. Not only that, but the MacBook Pro manages an even larger trackpad despite the laptop itself being thinner. And, like all macOS-outfitted devices, it even ships with Pages, iMovie and Garageband pre-installed at no extra cost.

Read the full review: Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, Late 2016)

Best laptops for students

Though it’s yet to adopt Apple’s Retina display standard, the benefit to this compromise is a 12-hour battery life coupled paired with a dual-core, Broadwell processor and now 8GB of RAM at the entry level.

Plus, if you don’t like the feel of the 12-inch MacBook‘s low-travel butterfly keys, the MacBook Air uses a more traditional chiclet-style keyboard. And hey, a MacBook Air is the most affordable (and pretty much the only) way to get that backlit Apple logo on the back of your laptop.

Read the full review: MacBook Air 13-inch

Gabe Carey has also contributed to this article


Best power user Linux distros in 2017: 5 reviewed and rated


Note: Our power user Linux distros round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in May 2013.

The Linux power user is a celebrated breed, and one that does not simply burst fully-formed from the earth. All newbies must toil long and hard with their Linux installations before they can describe themselves as one.

At the very least, the power user will have a great degree of skill concerning all things Linux, whether it’s the kernel, Bash or package management systems – and they won’t be afraid to get their hands dirty in the name of configuring the system.

It seems, in many ways, that power users are a dying breed. Almost all modern Linux distributions require little effort to get up and running, or to install new software or configure basic functionality. By definition, no power user will want to run any of these distros. This is why, despite their popularity, the likes of Ubuntu and Mint are not featured here.

In addition to a driven installation, which separates these distros from most others, what’s even better is the adaptability quotient of the distros in our roundup. You can easily coax any of these operating systems to perform tasks as disparate as churning out music at parties, or hosting complex websites.

The development methodology and underlying package management system are still relevant concerns, but if you’re driven by the desire to squeeze every ounce of power out of your Linux distro, you could be a power user…

How we tested…

All of the distros on our list have been around for a number of years, and indeed we’ve revised our appraisals of them over the course of several years. Over this period, they’ve each earned a large amount of kudos by offering unique perks or advantages over their peers, whether in terms of software management or ease of installation.

All these distros are extremely stable and so our roundup isn’t so much about performance as adaptability. We’re looking for things that make them ideal for experienced Linux users who are tired of newbie-oriented distros and want to do more with their Linux machines. This is possible when you have great control over every aspect of the distro.

Everything should be configurable and capable of being changed to your liking. The ideal distro for power users is one that encourages tinkering extensively with all the different aspects of the OS, and makes you work towards a perfect system. Which hopefully, you’ll get in the end.

  • Linux Format is the number one magazine to boost your knowledge on Linux, open source developments, distro releases and much more. Subscribe to the print or digital version of Linux Format here

Test 1: Installation

How easy is the first step?

These distros may be aimed at power users, but that doesn’t mean you want to tear your hair out during the installation process, however much street cred you may stand to gain later on. And it’s not a question of how long it takes to install – that’s a triviality – but rather how complicated the process is.

Slackware is one of our favourite distros, and its installation isn’t complex at all, unless you consider an ncurses-based installer complicated. The installer is certainly different, but by no means difficult to navigate. You may want to keep a copy of the Slackware book with you, maybe on a notebook or tablet.

When you run the setup, which takes you through several installation steps including package selection, pay special attention to the prompting mode and the software series. You can either install everything by selecting Full on the prompting mode, or select individual packages by choosing the Menu option.

You then have to select which software series to install. If you choose individual packages, the installer will not tell you how much space it will need – unlikely to be a problem on modern drives, but still something to consider. Slackware gets a bad rep because it doesn’t offer a graphical install, but it still provides a very straightforward installation.

Fedora and Debian both provide a graphical installation method more akin to those of mainstream consumer distros. The process is very simple, and several tasks – such as the partitioning of disks – can be automated, but it’s best if you at least review the partitioning scheme or do it yourself, especially if there are existing partitions on the disk that you would like to preserve. Neither distro lets you select the packages to install when installing from the live CD.

Arch is one of the easiest distros to install, although it’s far from the most straightforward to get running since it doesn’t provide a usable system post-installation. The most difficult step is the network card configuration. If you’re unable to configure your wireless card, you can run an Ethernet cable to your machine until the installation is done, and then try to configure the card later.

Once the base Arch system is installed, you move on to meatier things, such as installing the X window system, video drivers, if needed, and the desktop environment. Even after that’s done, you still have to install all the apps you may want to use, such as Firefox, VLC, LibreOffice and others. Complex, but at least the installation makes no assumptions about the way you’re going to want to use your system and allows you to configure it exactly.

Installing Gentoo is far more tedious than the other distros, even Arch, because it makes even fewer assumptions: Gentoo is all about building itself specifically to your hardware, and to your precise needs and wants. As such, it makes you do everything from defining USE flags to compiling the kernel, so be prepared for the installation to run to several days, perhaps, depending on your configuration and needs. Be sure to keep the installation documentation to hand when you begin.


Slackware: 4/5
Fedora: 5/5
Debian: 5/5
Arch: 5/5
Gentoo: 4/5

Test 2: Default packages

Not that a power user cares anyway…


An operating system is only an organised collection of a user’s preferred applications. If this statement is true then, despite completing the installation process, it’d be unwise to label Gentoo or Arch as operating systems, because installing these distros leaves you with a barebones system that you must then populate with all the apps that you require. Not only that, you don’t even get a default desktop environment, and have to choose one to install.

There are no defaults when working with Gentoo or Arch. Their intention is to give the user complete control over what they wish to install on the machine. While the other three distros in this roundup also allow you to select which packages to install during installation, they still aim to provide you with a nearly complete system immediately. That means out of the box, these distros offer a text editor, web browser, PDF reader and more.

For these three distros, despite the wide array of default packages, you still need to install codecs and other plugins before you can play media files, or enjoy videos on YouTube, or even get the most out of your proprietary graphics card.

Slackware offers Calligra as its office suite in KDE, while Fedora and Debian both ship with LibreOffice. You can also choose which desktop environment to install with Fedora depending on the installation media you use – check out the Fedora Spins project.

With Slackware, you only get the choice of KDE and Xfce during installation. Gnome or Mate fans will have to install their favourite environment post-installation.


Slackware: 4/5
Fedora: 5/5
Debian: 5/5
Arch: 1/5
Gentoo: 1/5

Test 3: Adaptability

How easy is it to configure these distros to your liking?

As we’ve mentioned several times already, one of the best things about these distros is that they are highly configurable. But what does that really mean? Aren’t all Linux distros configurable?

You can change the desktop background, the icons theme, define keyboard shortcuts, configure power management, and make many other changes to the appearance and behaviour of all Linux distros, so what’s the big deal?

Well, aesthetic configuration is only a small part of the overall picture. While many other distros stop at providing all the functionality listed above, the distros on our list go further and offer users the chance to make not just cosmetic changes but configure just about everything that can be configured. This gives you the chance to tweak everything for your specific needs – and that includes the kernel.

You don’t have to install the distro and then go about removing packages and settings you don’t want, which will never deliver as good a system as one built from scratch to your specifications.



Gentoo is an extremely configurable distro that you can optimise for just about any application. The Portage system is at the heart of everything that’s great about Gentoo. It delivers pinpoint control when installing packages, and the USE flags enable it to provide compile-time option support. This means you can define the precise features you want a package to support.

For instance, if you don’t run the KDE desktop when you install packages, Gentoo compiles them without support for KDE, trimming them down and avoiding unnecessary processing. This is why defining the USE flags is an integral part of installation.

As it doesn’t burden you with unwanted apps or libraries, Gentoo is very fast. It insists you inspect the kernel during installation and remove features you don’t need. No other distro lets you streamline the kernel before installation.

Verdict: 5/5



The test-bed of tools and technologies that eventually end up in Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora is an ideal distro for those hoping to be on the bleeding-edge of development.

Still, one of the worst things about Fedora is its default graphical front-end to its package manager, yum. You should try Yumex if you want a stable and feature-rich alternative. That said, while Slackware, Gentoo and Arch force you to the command line for many configuration tasks, Fedora offers excellent graphical tools for things like configuring the network, firewall, etc. It’s perfect for almost all kinds of users, and can easily be configured to be a game station, music streamer or even web or file server.

It may be best suited for developers and admins because of the tools it has to offer, but Fedora is not nearly as flexible as Gentoo, Arch or Slackware.

Verdict: 3/5



Whereas most distros make several changes to software packages, with Slackware you get packages nearly identical to upstream offerings. People complain of a steep learning curve, but anyone familiar with the command line and classic Unix tools will find it straightforward.

Striving to produce the most Unix-like distro available, Slackware makes ease of use and stability top priorities. This makes it ideal for servers. Slackware can be configured to run with KDE, Xfce or any desktop environment supporting any window manager. It gives great control over shaping the system during installation, thanks to its advanced package selection.

Slackware doesn’t follow an open development methodology, which means it doesn’t maintain a software repository or a bug tracking facility.

Verdict: 4/5



Debian is extremely stable, and this makes it ideal for servers. Its ability to please a large section of general-purpose desktop users has often been questioned because of its insistence on shipping older packages in order to be as stable as it can be.

That said, you can easily use the unstable repository if you want to be on the bleeding-edge. In fact, each of the three official Debian repositories have inspired several other distros. With Debian, you can run the same distro across many different architectures, as it supports i386, SPARC, AMD64, PowerPC, MIPS, ARM and other platforms.

Almost all software packages provide binaries for Debian, so you won’t have installation woes for any package.

Verdict: 4/5



Arch doesn’t believe in hiding the internal workings of the system. Like Gentoo, it’s great if you wish to learn what makes a Linux distro tick. But despite their similarities, Arch provides a somewhat simpler way of building your system. You don’t have to spend precious hours maintaining and grooming the system, as you do with Gentoo.

With its minimalistic philosophy, Arch stands in contrast to most other distros that compete to be the most feature-rich and beautiful. Other than a core system, which enables you to install additional packages, Arch makes no assumption about the kind of system you want, and allows users to mould the distro.

Building the distro from the ground-up results in a much speedier system. Like Slackware, Arch provides software packages from upstream without any modifications.

Verdict: 5/5

Test 4: Release schedule

Not that a power user cares anyway, part two

There are three popular development methodologies that Linux distributions typically adhere to – fixed schedule, fixed feature and rolling release. There’s the fixed schedule, as followed by Fedora, where they try to push a new release out every six months, and Debian, which pushes out a new major release roughly every two years.

These distros, more often than not, are drastically different from one release to the next. Switching from one release to the next thus involves a fresh install, or at least a major upgrade. This is more time-consuming and painstaking than a rolling release.

Next, we have the feature release model, as followed by Slackware. Here, instead of announcing a date for the next release, the distro is released when it’s good and ready. The project decides on a number of features it wishes to implement in the next release and works towards incorporating all the new features into the distro, releasing it only when all of these have been added. The current version – 14.2 – was released in mid-2016 after a three year gap.

Lastly, you have the rolling release cycle. This practice is followed by Arch and Gentoo. These distros, instead of a full-sized release, offer a small, minimal distro that you can use to install the base system. You then install the latest revisions of everything else that you need over the internet. With the very involved installation procedures that these distros require, the rolling release offers an install-and-forget way of working, and this is a feature that you can’t possibly dislike.


Slackware: 4/5
Fedora: 3/5
Debian: 3/5
Arch: 5/5
Gentoo: 5/5

Test 5: Documentation

Because even a power user may need to RTFM

From installation, to desktop environment, to package management, Linux distros can sometimes change the status quo without warning. When this happens, the project’s documentation and a helpful community can make the difference between a fatal kernel panic and a smooth-running system.

All the distros in this roundup can (thankfully) boast of a large repository of helpful documentation. Some, like Debian and Fedora, have been the subject of detailed books that describe setting them up for home use or as servers. Additionally, the popularity of each of these distros means that you can easily find answers to your queries with a simple search on the internet.

Gentoo and Arch, as you might expect given their relative complexity, offer the most extensive documentation. This tends to detail even the most basic of technologies, such as configuring the Ethernet interface or the Xinitrc and fstab files. This is especially needed for such distros because of their different way of doing things. Familiarity with any Linux distro can prepare you for just about all others, but Gentoo and Arch are so different that without proper documentation, even a seasoned Linux user might lose his or her footing.

All the distros also have an active community that you can engage with on mailing lists, forum boards and IRC. Additionally, on their websites, Slackware and Debian provide a list of companies/individual consultants that can be tapped for technical support.


Slackware: 4/5
Fedora: 4/5
Debian: 4/5
Arch: 5/5
Gentoo: 5/5

Test 6: Package management

Tools, repositories and happy customers


On Arch, you can use the Pacman package manager to install applications. Pacman uses compressed files, or tarballs, as a package format. It works by syncing the local packages with the server. Pacman supports dependency resolution and can download and install packages with a single command. The /etc/pacman.conf file contains a list of repositories.

In addition to the default, there’s also Arch User Repository (AUR), a community-driven repository maintained by Arch users. Users can vote on the packages in the AUR, and if a package gets enough votes and has a compatible licence, it gets pushed onto the official repositories.

Like Arch, Gentoo doesn’t provide any default packages, but it makes installing apps a breeze thanks to the Portage system, which is frequently identified as one of the best package management systems on Linux.

Emerge is a command line interface to the Portage system and, as with Pacman, you can use emerge to install, remove, upgrade and query packages. That said, you may have to do some fiddling, adjusting the USE flags or using package.mask before you can install packages. This is a tedious process, especially for the uninitiated. The reliance on USE flags to define what packages you want or don’t want on your machine gives Gentoo an edge over the others in terms of speed – the package management systems on other distros also seem slower than Portage.

Home of the yum package manager, Fedora offers several graphical frontends for you to manage packages, none of which are quite as good as the third-party solutions you can get. Yum relies on the reasonably standard (within Red Hat-derived distros) rpm package format, and you thus get the advantage of tapping in to many different third-party repositories, in addition to the default. You will have to configure these repos if you wish to install multimedia codecs and plugins, as a stock Fedora installation doesn’t play many media file formats.

Debian’s package management systems, APT and dpkg, need no introduction. Both of these are like Clint Eastwood – they continue to deliver outstanding performances year after year. Debian allows you to configure several other repositories, such as non-free and contrib, which contains packages that don’t gel with the very strict Debian Free Software Guidelines. As with Pacman and yum, you can use APT to install local packages, leveraging on the repositories to resolve dependencies.

Unlike the other distros, Slackware doesn’t offer a single full-featured tool for package management. Instead, you have a separate tool to install, update and remove packages. As Slackware uses source tarballs as packages, you also get a tool to convert rpm packages to tar.gz packages.

If you’re willing to sacrifice a few features, you can use the pkgtool utility to manage packages. This tool allows you to install and remove packages, but nothing else.


Slackware: 2/5
Fedora: 4/5
Debian: 4/5
Arch: 5/5
Gentoo: 5/5

Test 7: Fun quotient

Let’s put a smile on that face


Our whole reason for the selection of these distros is that they offer a chance for Linux users to go over and beyond what they are normally used to doing on their systems. There’s a lot of mucking about with files such as /etc/fstab, and setting up hostnames and configuring network interfaces with Arch and Gentoo. And all of it using command line tools!

These are generally processes that almost all Linux distros outgrew by the time we entered the 21st century. Their insistence on doing some things the old-fashioned way is not what makes them special, rather, it’s the fact that this gives you the chance to learn the many things that modern distros take for granted.

Fedora has a lot to offer if you’re interested in being at the cutting-edge of Linux development. If you’ve never ventured beyond newbie-friendly distros, such as Ubuntu and Mint, Fedora provides the perfect starting point towards attaining power user status.

Slackware and Debian are for more seasoned Linux users, who are willing to move towards more difficult things but still want enough familiarity to continue their learning. These distros introduce you to the possibility of working with the command line, as opposed to the graphical interface, for any number of routine tasks.

Finally, we have Arch and Gentoo. These are for adventurous souls who are ready to learn a completely different way of working. These offerings will introduce you to the core of Linux like no other distros. Forget graphical interfaces that obfuscate all configuration files – with these two distros, you are forced to spend time with configuration files you probably didn’t even know existed.


Slackware: 4/5
Fedora: 3/5
Debian: 3/5
Arch: 5/5
Gentoo: 5/5

The verdict

The only area where Gentoo and Arch falter is default packages, and we spent a lot of time debating whether we should award them five stars each. This is because by not providing any default packages they offer much greater control to the user to design the distro to their liking. This degree of control is the hallmark of a distro suited for power users.

After much consideration, we decided to dock points from both distros. Once that was done, it was obvious that we would have to be equally harsh on the scoring for the other distros in the documentation and package management sections.

This is why Debian and Fedora only managed four stars each in these two sections, despite offering detailed documentation and excellent package management tools. Even though we couldn’t find any fault in APT or yum, Arch’s Pacman and Gentoo’s Portage system fare better because of the level of sophistication and elegance with which they manage packages.

Debian and Slackware are an ideal starting point for would-be power users, and give you an idea of how configurable and flexible Linux systems can be.

Arch versus Gentoo

We were tempted to award first place to Arch because it’s easier to install and doesn’t require management of USE flags before installing packages. But the real test here is the level of control the distros offer to the users in moulding the distro to their exact specifications.

Gentoo offers pervasive control. It allows you to fine-tune the kernel during installation, so that you can remove the features you don’t want. It doesn’t get more configurable than this! What’s more, the USE flags which let you prepare the system for all the packages you wish to install (or not) are a really novel feature.

The USE flags provide the means to specify the options and features with which Portage installs packages. This helps you cut down dependencies, package size, compile team and results in a faster and leaner system. This is why Gentoo is so much faster in comparison with the other distros.

Winner is Gentoo

Final ranking

1st: Gentoo: 5/5

2nd: Arch: 5/5

3rd: Slackware: 4/5

4th: Debian: 4/5

5th: Fedora: 3/5

Also consider…

KDE has long been a favourite with power users because of all the configuration options it offers. By extension, all KDE distros can then be described as distros for power users. So you can try the likes of OpenSUSE or Chakra Linux to get a taste of KDE’s flexibility; these are built around KDE, rather than the KDE-based spins of other popular distros you might see around.

We’ve tried to limit our selection to distros that not only allow you greater control in configuring the system, but are also fun to use. The distros in our list are different from all other modern Linux distros in almost all aspects, be it installation or package management. Also, they are great for familiarising yourself with the internal workings of Linux, and teaching you things that you wouldn’t be aware of if you used other distros.

For this reason, it’s difficult to recommend any other distro. If you’ve already mastered Gentoo and Arch, or are ready for even more of a challenge, you can try Linux From Scratch. LFS is a book that guides you to build your system from scratch. Unlike Gentoo and Arch, which at least provide a working base system, with LFS you have to do all the work by yourself.


The best free PDF to Word converter 2017

Free PDF to Word converters

Portable Data File (PDF) documents are designed for sharing information, and look the same regardless of which hardware and software is used to view them.

PDFs aren’t designed for editing though, so if you need change or extract text or images, the easiest way is to convert it to a Word document, which you can then open with the office software of your choice (whether that’s Microsoft Word or a free alternative like LibreOffice Writer). There are several free programs that can do the job, using different techniques to identify and extract

PDFs don’t always convert perfectly to Word format – particularly if they use fonts that aren’t installed on your PC, or lots of images – but these free PDF to Word converters will give you the best possible results.

1. WPS PDF to Word Converter

A new PDF to Word document converter that delivers very impressive results

WPS PDF to Word Converter is a brand new tool from the developers behind our favorite free office software, WPS Office. It’s incredibly easy to use – just drag the file onto the software’s main screen and pick the export format (options include DOC, DOCX, and RTF) and click ‘Start’.

Document converted using WPS PDF to Word Converter

Because it’s a desktop app, WPS PDF to Word converter is noticeably faster than online tools, and can process files in batches. The free edition will convert PDFs up to five pages long, so if you want to convert larger documents you’ll need to divide it into chunks first using a tool like PDFSAM. Alternatively, the premium version of WPS PDF to Word Converter costs £22.95 (US$29.95, AU$39.95), with no limit on pagination.

The exported Word documents are very impressive – easily the best of all the PDF to Word converters we tested. Images were preserved and aligned correctly, text formatting was retained, and font styles and weights were accurately reproduced. If you want to convert a PDF to an editable Word document, WPS PDF to Word Converter is the best tool by far.

Download here: WPS PDF to Word Converter

2. Free Online OCR

Download UniPDF free

Optical character recognition produces neat documents that look perfect with a little tweaking

As the name suggests, Free Online OCR is a web app uses optical character recognition to identify text in PDFs. This means it works with scanned documents as well as original files – essential if you want to convert and edit a printed handout from a lecture, for example.

Document converted using Free Online OCR

Free Online OCR can only convert one file at a time, up to 5GB in size. Select your PDF, pick a language, choose a format (Microsoft Word, Excel, or plain text), and then enter a Captcha to start the conversion. After a few seconds you’re provided with a link to download the converted file. Unlike some web apps, there’s no need to provide an email address, then wait for the link to be delivered.

In our tests, Free Online OCR did a great job of preserving our PDF’s formatting, presenting text in editable columns. We were particularly impressed that the image was formatted as a header, and locked in place.

The limitations of OCR were visible in a few places – text on colored backgrounds wasn’t always identified, and there were a few rogue tabs and line breaks – but it wouldn’t take much tweaking to get the Word document looking almost identical to the PDF. Free Online OCR is very impressive – we just wish it was available as a desktop app so we didn’t have to upload files one at a time.

Try it online: Free Online OCR


3. Nitro PDF to Word Converter

Great for extracting and formatting text, but not a good choice for image-heavy documents

There are two versions of Nitro PDF to Word Converter – a desktop app for Windows and an online version – but only the latter is free to use forever.

Document converted using Nitro PDF to Word Converter

You can upload multiple files, and there’s a good choice of import and export formats (including Word, PowerPoint and Excel), but there are some significant drawbacks. Unlike Free Online OCR, Nitro PDF to Word Converter emails your converted file to you, and each email address is limited to five file conversions per month – a pretty severe limit that severely restricts its usefulness.

Text was maintained quite well in our converted document – including the keylines between columns, which was a pleasant surprise – but the main image didn’t survive the change of format. There were also some rogue spaces and line breaks, though these wouldn’t take long to correct manually.

Try it online: Nitro PDF to Word Converter


4. UniPDF

A PDF to Word converter Works well with simple documents, but struggles with formatting

UniPDF is a Windows desktop app, which means it avoids the issues of slow upload and download speeds, and means you don’t have to trust your documents to a third party that might keep them cached.

Document converted using UniPDF

The trial edition of UniPDF can only convert three pages – to convert more you’ll need to either upgrade to the paid version, or split your PDF using a tool like PDFsam, then recombine the resulting Word documents.

In our tests, UniPDF preserved the overall look of our magazine page, including images, but struggled with complex text formatting. Columns ran into one another, and in some cases the converted text was a dramatically different size to the original, making it tricky to adjust. A few letters were also missing here and there, leaving us with quite an extensive cleanup job to get the Word document to a functional state.

Download here: UniPDF

5. Free File Converter

A jack of all trades, but not a master of PDF to Word conversion, coping with text but not images

Free File Converter is another online-only tool, and it’s capable of much more than just PDF to Word conversions; it can handle a huge range of formats, and its key welling point is its ability to save files from video sites including DailyMotion and eHow.

Document converted using Free File Converter

You can only convert one file at a time, but the process is simple – click ‘Convert file’, choose an output format and click ‘Convert’. As with OnlineOCR, there’s no need to provide an email address and wait for a message – the download link appears on-screen immediately.

Unfortunately, the results were disappointing. The text from our PDF was converted well enough. But all images and formatting were lost, including headings, columns and font styles. Line breaks also appeared in awkward places, so even if you just wanted the text, you’d need to spend some quality time with Find and Replace, or your backspace key. If you only want the words, you’d be better off converting the document to plain text format.

Try it online: Free File Converter


Microsoft opens cybersecurity center to protect Mexicans

MEXICO CITY Feb. 24, 2017 To reinforce its commitment to help people, companies and countries within Latin America to continue their journey towards digital transformation, Microsoft is launching a Cybersecurity Engagement Center in Mexico, part of a global initiative to present the company’s unique perspective on matters of IT security, which is not only the result of several decades of experience in the development and ongoing improvement of software, but also of the operation of one of the industry’s most robust and trustworthy cloud computing platforms.

At Microsoft there is a strong belief that having a fixed stance on operational security is the starting point, which also implies its continuous practice. This is made a reality by the company’s goals that focus on protecting, detecting and responding to security threats.

“At Microsoft, we are committed to invest in the region so we can bring our cybersecurity capabilities to customers by identifying current threats that affect the economy’s prosperity. By opening this Cybersecurity Center, we are offering our clients protection from attacks and security risks, as well as ways to detect them and find solutions,” explained Jorge Silva, general manager of Microsoft Mexico.

The center will serve Mexico and other Latin American countries. Some of its functions will include:

  • Taking advantage of Microsoft’s proactive role in matters of fighting cybercrime, particularly in the dismantling of criminal organizations that operate through Botnet schemes
  • Allowing cybersecurity experts from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America to work with Microsoft specialists to fight cybercrime together
  • Acting as a headquarters for the development of training activities in order to support the building and strengthening of technical capabilities; these activities are geared toward authorities and the public sector

“This new center will work together with Microsoft’s Cybercrime Center in Redmond, Washington. The objective is to help companies and governments with security solutions, which help them in their digital transformation through the international support of the intelligence, data analysis, avant-garde forensics and legal strategies that we offer,” added Jean-Philippe Courtois, executive vice president and president, Microsoft Global Sales, Marketing and Operations, during his visit to the Cybersecurity Center in Mexico City.

In conjunction with the opening of this center, Microsoft is signing with the Federal Police (in representation of the Mexican government), a Government Security Program that reinforces the work of carrying out actions focused on technological research in order to promote IT security and also to prevent and fight crimes that are committed through the internet.

The agreement was signed by Manelich Castilla, commissioner general of the Federal Police, and Jorge Silva, general manager of Microsoft Mexico. Renato Sales Heredia, national security commissioner of Mexico’s Secretariat of the Interior, and Jean-Philippe Courtois, executive vice president and president, Microsoft Global Sales, Marketing and Operations, were present as honorary witnesses.

“By opening this center, we are bringing Microsoft’s offer of security increasingly closer to customers in order to be a strategic part of their transformation, and together we will create a country and a region that are more prosperous and productive, and above all, that are safer,” concluded Jorge Silva, general manager of Microsoft Mexico.

About Microsoft

Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) is the leading platform and productivity company for the mobile-first, cloud-first world, and its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

Lead image: Jorge Silva, General Manager of Microsoft Mexico; Renato Sales Heredia, National Security Commissioner of Mexico’s Secretariat of the Interior; Jean-Philippe Courtois, Executive Vice President and President, Microsoft Global Sales, Marketing and Operations; and Alejandra Lagunes, Mexico’s National Digital Strategy Coordinator.


Best online backup services for business in 2017

Note: Our best online backup services for business round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in November 2013.

If running regular backups is important for home users, it’s essential in business: losing even a small fraction of your most important data, for a brief period of time, could still be a real disaster.

You could try to protect yourself by copying files to local drives, but that takes time and effort. It also leaves you vulnerable to fire, theft and hardware failure, which is why automatically uploading your files to a cloud backup service is often a better idea.

Choosing the right backup solution can seem tricky, as there’s a lot to consider. How much storage space do you really need, for instance? Must the service support versioning (where multiple versions of documents are kept)? How should this be managed?

Security is important, too. What sort of encryption options do you get? How is access to your data managed? What options are there for managing your users, seeing what they’re doing, making sure they’re complying with your policies and procedures?

You’re probably not going to get by with a free Dropbox account, but there are plenty of business providers ready to deliver the extras you and your company need. Here, in alphabetical order, are eight of the best.

Price: $50 (£40, AU$65) per computer per year

Backblaze has been delivering easy, low-cost backup services to consumers for years, so it’s no surprise that its business products have the same focus on simplicity and value.

There are no limits on capacity, for instance, or bandwidth. There’s no need to browse multiple service levels and try to figure out what’s right for you. Backblaze Business is just a single plan which offers unlimited backup space for one computer, at a flat rate of $50 (£40, AU$65) per computer per year.

The backup process is just as straightforward, with the program initially backing up all your data – which can even be on external disks and USB keys – and then backing up individual files as they change. Your data is then accessible online via a web interface and mobile app.

Bonus features include versioning, where file changes are kept for four weeks. An anti-theft feature records the IP address of your computer when it connects, and backup data can be sent on a flash drive or USB hard drive for speedy restores, anywhere in the world. Send the drive back within 30 days and they’ll refund the price in full.

The service now includes some handy central management tools. Admins can assign users to separate groups for custom billing, view details about their backup status and settings, and receive alerts on problems.

There’s even built-in support for BackBlaze’s B2 cloud storage, an Amazon S3-like service which backs up servers and NAS for a flat $5 (£4, AU$6.50) per terabyte per month.

In our experience BackBlaze only delivers mid-range backup performance, but that’s fine for most purposes, and we think the service delivers in terms of features and value.

Price: 250GB for $270 (£215, AU$350) per year

Unlike most backup products, Carbonite Computer Backup Core is licenced to run on as many computers, external hard drives and NAS drives as you need. Sounds good, and although the base price is higher than some – along with the $99 (£80, AU$129) per year per 100GB of extra storage – it’s in line with other business backup companies.

However, the service does deliver plenty for your money. Carbonite can manage just about every aspect of your backups, keeping training and other hassles to a minimum. Even the initial backup is largely automatic, and incremental backups then upload changed files only.

Encryption is vital in keeping data safe once it has left your system, and Carbonite uses multiple technologies, including TLS during transfer and 128-bit Blowfish when stored.

All your files are visible from a web interface, iOS and Android apps, and there are various ways to restore them: individually, or all, and everything in-between, along with deleted files or previous versions (for up to a month), or everything that’s changed after a point in time (handy if you’ve been hit by ransomware).

If your business grows and you need more, there’s an Ultimate plan you can upgrade to which costs $1,000 (£800, AU$1,300) annually and gets you 500GB, unlimited server image backups with bare metal restore.

Put it all together and Carbonite Computer Backup Core is a quality package, although as mentioned, there are cheaper services around.

Price: $120 (£96, AU$156) per computer per year

Some business backup providers try to compete on functionality, others on price, but CrashPlan Pro aims to do both. The service combines a low price with a lengthy list of features and controls, including some that are rarely found elsewhere.

The package works on Linux, as well as PCs and Macs, for instance. There’s unlimited storage space, including unlimited versioning, and it’s easy to find documents by date, time or version (such a useful feature that it could be a reason for choosing this product in itself).

The service is hugely customisable. You can have continuous or scheduled backups. Online destinations, local, or both. And it’s possible to use your preferred encryption or compression settings, retention policies and more.

Some genuinely intelligent features help to enhance reliability. The package can watch for new documents in your chosen folders, for instance, ensuring files are protected as soon as possible.

All this can be managed from a powerful web console. You’re able to monitor backup progress and settings, configure clients, enforce policies and more, although notably this is desktop-only – the console doesn’t support mobile browsers.

There might be cheaper packages than CrashPlan Pro around, but on an overall level, they don’t get close to its power and functionality. If you’re a desktop user and need anything more than the backup basics, CrashPlan is definitely one for your shortlist.

Price: 250GB for US$100 (£80, AU$130) per year (25% discount on year one)

IDrive Business is a versatile cloud backup service which does its best to cater for just about every possible need.

You’re covered on PCs running anything from Windows 2000 up. There’s Mac support, Linux backup scripts, iOS, Android and Windows mobile clients, and backup support for Windows Server, Microsoft SQL, Exchange, SharePoint and Oracle.

The baseline 250GB storage may not be enough for everyone, but hybrid backup support – the ability to save some files locally – allows you to be more selective about which files head for the cloud, and which stay nearby.

Once your data is online it can be accessed via a web interface, synced with computers or mobiles, and there’s even a mechanism for sharing files via email, Facebook and Twitter.

IDrive Express is a feature which enables quickly backing up or restoring your system via a physically shipped drive. Unusually, the Business plan allows three free backups per year.

Despite all this functionality, the ability to create subaccounts for your storage space and a straightforward web-based management console helps you keep track of what’s going on.

Overall it’s a likeable package, and if your budget is non-existent then also consider IDrive Personal. There’s no server backup or subaccounts, but the basic features and 5GB of storage can be yours for free.

Price: From 10GB for £110 ($137, AU$178) per year

MozyPro is a small business-oriented cloud backup plan from Mozy, one of the most long-standing and popular backup providers.

As you’ve probably noticed from the headline price, MozyPro isn’t cheap, but the company does offer plenty of licencing flexibility. If 10GB isn’t enough you could get 50GB for £19 ($24, AU$31) per month, or £398 ($497, AU$647) for two years.

Whatever you choose, backup is a largely automatic, set-and-forget process. But there is also some configurability if you need it, including backup scheduling and even a choice of encryption (a 256-bit AES personal encryption key, or a managed key for 448-bit Blowfish).

Files can optionally be synced across all your hardware, including iOS or Android devices. Alternatively, you’re able to access them all from a web interface.

If you’ve opted for the baseline 10GB account, this won’t give you much space to play with, but MozyPro’s admin console offers some handy controls. Set up individual users and you’re able to specify the number of devices they can back up, optionally set a limit for their total storage space, and enable or disable the sync feature.

MozyPro’s high price will be a problem for some, but we’ve found the company provides a fast and reliable service. If you’ve had problems with cheaper products, give it a try.

Price: From 100GB for $300 (£240, AU$330) per year

SOS Online Backup for Business may look expensive, but there’s a simple explanation – the standard package includes a host of features which are premium add-ons elsewhere.

There’s no limit on the number of devices you can back up, for instance. Servers are supported, too. SQL Server, Exchange, SharePoint? No problem at all.

The core product removes many of the annoying restrictions you’ll find elsewhere. There’s unlimited versioning, no file size limits, no maximum retention times, and the service backs up just about everything: PCs from Vista up, Macs, iOS and Android devices, flash drives, network drives and more.

SOS Online Backup offers an optional per-user encryption key which is never stored in the cloud, ensuring your data can’t be read by anyone else. That’s a major security plus, if you can put up with the usability issues. (You can’t browse or access files from the web, and if you lose the key there’s no way to recover them at all.)

In day-to-day use, the SOS Online Backup clients don’t always deliver quite as much functionality as we’d like. They’re still above average, though, and the service scores where it matters, being both fast and very easy-to-use. There’s a 15-day free trial if you’re interested in taking a look.

Price: From $1,080 (£867, AU$1,406) per year for 10 users

SpiderOak Groups is the team edition of SpiderOak One, a very secure backup system for groups of 10 or more users. Each user costs you a very reasonable $9 (£7.20, AU$11.70) a month for unlimited storage space with no device limits.

The product is based on the principle of ‘zero knowledge’ which means nothing leaves your computer until it’s encrypted, and SpiderOak has no more access to the data than anyone else. You don’t have to trust them, or worry about the server being hacked, because it won’t make any difference – no one’s getting in unless they know the password.

This is great for privacy, which is one reason Edward Snowden recommended SpiderOak back in 2014, but the service isn’t nearly as flexible or accessible as most of the competition. There’s a very basic one-way sync service, a limited web interface to access your files, and some clunky, read-only iOS and Android apps (check out the dire reviews on Google Play).

The app issue may not be such a problem if you’re happy with desktop backups, mind. And on the PC, say, SpiderOak is easy enough to set up, stays out of your way, and has an account management system to define exactly what your users can do.

Average performance and relatively weak mobile support means SpiderOak Groups won’t appeal to everyone, but if you have a large team which really needs a zero knowledge approach, then it could be a sensible choice.

Price: 1TB and up to 3 users for $550 (£442, AU$716) per year

SugarSync Business is a convenient file sync and cloud backup service with one or two handy enterprise-friendly extensions.

The core of the package is its powerful and configurable sync service. You choose your folders, and they’re uploaded then backed up in real-time, giving easy access to your data from PCs, Macs, Android or iOS devices.

There’s considerable control over file sharing. You can create public links to share data, invite specific people only, allow file viewing only, or give them editing permission, too.

SugarSync’s key advantage over similar services is that it’s not just based around a single folder. You’re able to choose any folder or folder tree, and have everything backed up and synced in the same way.

Opting for the Business plan takes the package further with 1TB of storage space for up to three users. Remote management enables the creation of user accounts with storage limits and permissions, and there’s a bonus option to remotely wipe one of your systems.

Limited versioning support might be an issue for some. SugarSync only maintains the last five versions of a file, not much of a safety margin, and disappointing when some services have no fixed limits at all.

On balance, SugarSync Business doesn’t have quite as many features as other products, but the strong sync and file sharing technologies have kept it on our shortlist.


Best VPN for Chrome users: Our 5 top choices

As the world’s most popular browser (and by a large margin, too), Chrome offers plenty in terms of versatility. Its user-friendly setup, stability and security are some of the reasons why many of us opt to use Google’s browser for navigating the worldwide web.

Add in the endless number of customisation options to be had by using various extensions and you can really turn Chrome into a personal browser tuned to your exact preferences. Of course, among this bewildering array of potential add-ons for Chrome are extensions from VPN providers, but how do you pick out the best one?

How to choose the best VPN service for Chrome

For a Chrome VPN extension, you’ll doubtless be looking to protect your privacy while surfing, and possibly to bypass censorship or unblock geo-restricted content. And as always, you’ll want strong encryption and protocol support for tight security.

Performance levels are also important, especially if you’re keen on using Chrome to access streaming services. And for obvious reasons, the browser extension should be easy to setup and use. Bearing all that in mind, let’s move on to highlight our five top choices for the best VPN when it comes to Chrome.

After downloading the Hotspot Shield extension from the Chrome store, it only takes a couple of clicks before you’re up and running. You’re automatically assigned to the optimal server with the fastest connection speed. There’s not much here in terms of configuration options, but the extension is free – albeit with a limited choice of four locations (although on the plus side, you aren’t bombarded by ads).

Performance-wise, with this provider, our upload and download speeds proved to be a tad higher than what we’d normally see, with only a slight increase in latency. Hotspot Shield uses 256-bit encryption and frequently updates its browser add-on.

As mentioned, there is a location-limited free version, and a 7-day trial which you can use to thoroughly test the service for full access to all virtual locations and additional options.

Hotspot Shield is relatively cheap with five pricing plans available, including a ‘Forever’ option which is the best choice in the long run (if you want to fully commit). Of the rest, the 1-year plan provides the most bang for your buck. The packages available are:

  • With KeepSolid, you need to create an account or log on with an existing one in order to use the Chrome extension. Once you’re up and running, you can pick from over 50 servers with global coverage. There are also some neat additional features which are worth noting like DNS leak prevention and a stealth mode (KeepSolid Wise, which helps avoid being detected and blocked by services trying to sniff out VPN usage).

    KeepSolid did well in our performance tests with latency, as well as download and upload speeds, being only slightly down compared to our normal rates. However, most of the provider’s servers don’t support torrents, so if that’s an important consideration, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

    VPN Unlimited is free to download and try for a week. Beyond that, there are three rather affordable subscription plans, one of them being a Lifetime option. Other than the permanent subscription, you can only choose between a monthly and a yearly package, the latter being the best value for money (as ever). The packages available are:

    SaferVPN’s Chrome extension boasts single-click connection which grants access to over 30 server locations. The extension is free, but if you’re not a paying subscriber, there’s a 500MB per month data limit (you’re also required to sign up for free usage).

    The provider manages its global server network in-house, which doubtless helps on the performance front, and indeed we enjoyed good speeds and a stable connection in our testing.

    There’s no P2P support, though, and the service records a great deal of session data – things like connect and disconnect times, bandwidth used and so on. While there’s no logging of actual traffic data, on an overall level, SaferVPN collects more data than we’d ideally like to see.

    You have three price plans at your disposal with the 2-year plan offering the best value for money. There’s also a free 24-hour trial with unlimited access to the full service. The packages available are:

    Private Internet Access doesn’t offer a free Chrome extension, so you’ll need to have an account with the provider. Some of the major benefits here include advert, tracking and malware blocking to make your browsing a more streamlined and safer experience. The extension is also commendably easy-to-use – there’s just a simple on/off switch.

    Additional features include protection from DNS leaks, a kill switch, and sorting gateways by latency so you can easily get the fastest connection possible. Speaking of performance, there was nothing to brag about here, but speeds were solid enough and certainly acceptable.

    The service doesn’t offer a free trial. There are three available plans which come with a 7-day money-back guarantee. All of them are quite affordable with the yearly plan offering the best savings. The packages available are:

    Blockless will please any novice VPN user out there, as it’s very easy-to-use indeed. It offers a simple point-and-click experience, automatically detecting the fastest server available to you based on your region. The service has a free plan, as well, but you’ll have to sign up and create an account to use the Chrome extension.

    The free plan does have its limitations: you can only connect one device and it’s not possible to change your region. On top of that, there are only 14 server locations and the extension has no advanced features. On the plus side, there are no adverts thrown at you here, so your browsing won’t be interrupted.

    In our testing, Blockless gave a good account of itself on the performance front, with some fairly fast download speeds – although it was rather inconsistent at times.

    The VPN’s Premium plan is reasonably priced and comes with full access to all regions, five simultaneous connections and an advanced ad blocker, among other goodies. The packages available are:


Best free iPad games 2017

So you’ve got an iPad, but have come to the dawning realisation that you’ve got no cash left to buy any games for it.

Have no fear, because the App Store offers plenty of iPad gaming goodness for the (unintentional or otherwise) skinflint.

  • Haven’t bought an iPad yet and not sure which is best? We’ve got them listed on our best iPad ranking – or you can check out the best tablets list to see the full range available now.

Our updated pick of the best free iPad games are listed right here.

We’ve lost count of the number of puzzle games where you swipe to force a couple of blocks simultaneously slide about, aiming to make them both reach a goal. And on first glance, that’s Waiit.

But this title cleverly differentiates itself from mundane contemporaries by welding itself to the guts of an endless runner.

In Waiit’s vertically scrolling world, a universe-devouring entity is in hot pursuit. You must rapidly figure out routes to the next exit and deftly perform the swipes required to get both of your squares through unscathed.

Tension is mixed with charm as the little squares holler to each other by way of comic-style balloons. And although you’ll initially fail quickly and often – perhaps even hankering for a hazard-free zen mode – it’s Waiit’s relative toughness that’ll keep you coming back to beat your high score.

The best way to think about Brick Shot is as a radically simplified Tetris where you happen to be hurtling along at insane speeds. There’s just one shape here – a rectangular brick – and it must be fired along one of four columns, with you aiming to complete rows and make them disappear.

For the first fifteen shots, it’s pretty much impossible to mess up. The screen scrolls slowly, ensuring your aim is always true. Then Brick Shot ups the pace considerably, and even only having four columns to decide between can sometimes feel like three too many.

On the iPad at least, your fingers have space to rest and your eyes can more easily track incoming walls. Ongoing success unlocks alternate modes, although the straightforward original’s probably the best.

Coming across like Civilization in miniature, The Battle of Polytopia is all about dominating a tiny isometric world. You explore, capture villages, duff up opponents and discover new technologies in order to build more powerful units.

But the empire building is stripped back, with smart limitations for mobile. The ‘tech tree’ is abbreviated (trust us, you’ll understand when you play), and only one unit can sit in any given square. Also, by default you have a 30-move limit – although hardcore players can opt for a mode where you continue until only one tribe is left standing.

Despite its relative simplicity compared to Civilization, Polytopia has plenty of depth, and can be tough as you delve into the higher difficulty levels. Rather generously, you get the entire thing for free – IAP exists purely to unlock new tribes and boost the number you can face beyond three.

If you know your arcade history, you’ll know that Galaga is one of the earliest single-screen shooters. The sequel to Galaxian – where aliens started fighting back by way of dive-bombing – Galaga added ‘Challenging Stages’, where strings of ships would flit about rather than marching back and forth in formation.

Galaga Wars combines both approaches, increases the pace, adds glossy modern cartoonish graphics, and gleefully ends your war should your ship take a single hit. You must therefore weave through projectiles, efficiently offing opponents, and grabbing power-ups whenever they appear.

Regular boss battles up the ante in what’s a vibrant and compelling shooter. The excitement does eventually wane – levels never change and it’s a grind to reach later ones – but for a time this is a solid free blaster for your iPad, and for many of us that’s just the way we like our tablet gaming.

The original Flappy Golf was a surprise hit, given that it was essentially a joke – a satire on Flappy Bird. While Flappy Golf 2 is a more polished and considered effort, it’s essentially more of the same, giving you courses from the most recent Super Stickman Golf, and adding wings to the balls.

Instead of smacking the ball with a stick, then, you flap it skywards, using left and right buttons to head in the right direction. If you’re a Super Stickman Golf 3 aficionado, Flappy Golf 2 forces you to try very different approaches to minimize flaps and get the scores needed to unlock further courses.

For newcomers, it’s an immediate, fun and silly take on golf, not least when you delve into the manic race mode. The permanent ad during play also makes this a far better bet on iPad than iPhone, where the ad can obscure the course. (Disappointingly, there’s no IAP to eradicate advertising.)

This fast-paced rhythm-action game has you swiping the screen like a lunatic, trying to help your tiny musicians to the end of a piece of classical music without them exploding. Yep, things are tough in the world of Epic Orchestra – one bum note and a violinist or pianist will evaporate in a puff of smoke.

The entire thing is swipe-based. Arrows descend from the top of a narrow column at the centre of the screen, and you must match them with a gesture. At lower difficulty levels, this is insanely easy.

Ramp up the speed, though, and your fingers will soon be in a twist, despite the apparent simplicity of the task. A $1.99/£1.99/AU$2.99 IAP unlocks more songs, but you get five for free.

One of the most ludicrous one-thumb games around, Brake or Break features a car hurtling along the road. You can hold the screen to brake, and if you don’t, the car speeds up. Sooner or later, it’ll be hurled into the air and start spinning, thereby awarding you with huge points – unless you land badly and smash your vehicle to pieces.

There’s a lot of risk-versus-reward and careful timing here, with gameplay that offers a smattering of Tiny Wings and a whole lot of weird.

Most of said oddness comes by way of the environment, which lobs all kinds of objects at your car, and regularly has it propelled into the air by a grinning tornado. Stick out the game long enough (or open your wallet) and you can unlock new worlds and cars to further shake things up.

Instead of blazing through larger-than-life takes on real-world cities, Asphalt Xtreme takes you off-road, zooming through dunes, drifting across muddy flats, and generally treating the great outdoors in a manner that will win you no favors with the local authorities.

As per other entries in the series, this is ballsy arcade racing, with bouncy physics, simple controls, an obsession with boosting, and tracks designed to make you regularly smash your car to bits.

It’s also, sadly, absolutely riddled with freemium cruft: timers; currencies; nags – the lot. But if you can look past that and dip in and out occasionally to allow the game to ‘recharge’, there’s a lot to like in this racer that’s decided roads and rules are so last season.

There’s a delightful and elegant simplicity at the heart of Mars: Mars. The game echoes iPad classic Desert Golfing, in providing a seemingly endless course to explore. But rather than smacking a ball, you’re blasting a little astronaut between landing pads.

The controls also hark back to another game – the ancient Lunar Lander. After blast-off, you tap the sides of the screen to emit little jets of air, attempting to nudge your astronaut in the right direction and break their fall before a collision breaks them.

Smartly, you can have endless tries without penalty, but the game also tots up streaks without death. Repeat play is further rewarded by unlocking characters (also available via IAP), many of which dramatically alter the environment you’re immersed in.

Like a simulation of having a massive migraine while on a stomach-churning roller-coaster, Groove Coaster 2 Original Style is a rhythm action game intent on blasting your optics out while simultaneously making your head spin.

It flings you through dizzying, blazing-fast tracks, asking you to tap or hold the screen to the beat of thumping techno and catchy J-Pop.

The game looks superb – all retro-futuristic vector graphics and explosions of color that are like being stuck inside a mirror ball while 1980s video games whirl around your head.

Mostly you’ll stick around for the exhilarating tap-happy rhythm action, which marries immediacy with plenty of challenge, clever choreography tripping up the complacent on higher difficulty levels.

It never becomes a slog though – tracks are shortish and ideal for quick play; and for free, you can unlock plenty of them, but loads more are available via in-app purchase.

So crazy it has an exclamation mark in its name, Crazy Truck! is essentially a reverse Flappy Bird. Your blocky vehicle bounces around like a hyperactive hybrid of a 4×4 and a flea, abruptly returning to terra firma when you hold the screen.

This sounds simple enough, yet the controls are oddly disorienting, not least when your chunky vehicle’s tasked with avoiding waves of deadly bombs and rockets that litter the screen.. which is at pretty much every moment.

Games are therefore very short; and, frankly, we shouldn’t encourage this kind of iPad game, given that there are so many of them. But Crazy Truck! is colorful – if frequently frustrating – fun, and neatly has you tackle the same ‘course’ until you beat a virtual opponent. (Well, we say ‘neatly’; whether you’ll think that on your 27th attempt…)

Initially, Rings baffles. You’re served some colored rings and told to place them on a three-by-three grid.

But you soon realize you’re in color-matching territory, rings exploding when colors match on a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line.

The twist is that there are three sizes of ring, and sometimes pieces have multiple rings with different colors. You must therefore carefully manage where you place each piece, otherwise the board fills up in a manner that will have you desperately hoping for a tiny green ring before the game bats away your trifling wishes and mercilessly ends your game.

That won’t happen for some time though – the games tend to go on for too long, unless you’re paying no attention whatsoever.

However, if you can carve an hour out of your day, a session with Rings should prove a satisfying and relaxing diversion that gives your brain a bit of a workout.

Rather than requiring you to build a tower, Six! is all about demolition, tapping to blast Tetris-like shapes from a colorful column. The tiny snag is a hexagon sits at the top, and the second it falls into the void, your game is over.

In theory, Six! is the kind of game that should be ridiculously easy. In reality, the hexagon is big and unwieldy and the tower narrow enough that you must take care removing blocks, lest the plummeting shape spin and fling itself to certain doom.

When that happens, the simple fun rather nicely concludes with a frantic ‘last call’, where you tap like a maniac to grab a bunch of extra points before the screen dims.

We have absolutely no idea what’s going on in Masky. What we do know is that this is a deeply weird but thoroughly compelling game.

According to the game’s blurb, Masky’s all about some kind of grand costume ball, with you dancing to mystic sounds and inviting other masked dancers to join you. What this means in practice is shuffling left and right, adding other dancers to your merry band, and ensuring the balance meter never goes beyond red. If it does, everyone falls over – masks everywhere.

Beyond the lovely graphics and audio, there’s a smart – if simple – game here. Some masks from newcomers added to your line shake things up, flipping the screen or temporarily removing the balance meter.

Inevitably, everything also speeds up as you play, making keeping balance increasingly tough. We don’t doubt the unique visuals count for a lot regarding Masky’s pull, but the strange premise and compelling gameplay keep you dancing for the long haul.

Perhaps our favorite thing about Level With Me is that it’s, really, very silly indeed. The premise is to balance things on a massive plank, precariously perched atop the pointy bit of a tower.

Said plank’s position is shifted by tapping water at the foot of the screen, launching massive bubbles. These counter whatever’s lurking on top, unless you mess up and everything slides into the sea and explodes.

Tasks come thick and fast, often lasting mere seconds. You must quickly figure out how to balance 10 people when they’re being chased by zombies, construct a hamburger when its component parts are being lobbed from the heavens, and pop balloons by using a trundling hedgehog.

The themes admittedly repeat quite often, but everything’s so charming (and your games are so short) that this doesn’t really matter.

It’s safe to say that subtlety wasn’t on the menu of whatever service Ding Dong Delivery represents. This is a brash endless runner of the tap head/rub belly variety. You control a delivery vehicle, smashing its way along a road, attempting to hurl takeaways at waiting hungry people who might think otherwise about ordering from you in future.

This is a two-button effort, one lobs food and the other switches lanes. Games mostly involve frantically mashing the throw food button, hoping for the best, while maniacally weaving between parked cars and avoiding idiots driving into the middle of the road without looking.

It’s part Paperboy, part Flappy Bird, and while the action eventually palls, it’s always good for a quick blast – especially when you start unlocking vehicles and get to deliver pizza using a massive tank.

The BAFTA-winning INKS rethought pinball for mobile, breaking it down into bite-sized simple tables that were more like puzzles. Precision shots – and few of them – were the key to victory. PinOut! thinks similarly, while simultaneously transforming the genre into an against-the-clock endless runner.

The idea is to always move forwards, shooting the ball up ramps that send it to the next miniature table. Along the way, you grab dots to replenish the relentlessly ticking down timer, find and use power-ups, and play the odd mini-game, in a game that recalls basic but compelling fare once found on the LED displays of real-life tables.

PinOut! is gorgeous – all neon-infused tables and silky smooth synth-pop soundtrack. And while the seemingly simplified physics might nag pinball aficionados, it makes for an accessible and playable game for everyone else.

There’s not a lot of originality in King Rabbit, but it’s one of those simple and endearing puzzle games that sucks you in and refuses to let go until you’ve worked your way through the entire thing.

The premise is hackneyed — bunnies have been kidnapped, and a sole hero must save them. And the gameplay is familiar too, where you leap about a grid-like landscape, manipulating objects, avoiding hazards, finding keys, unlocking doors, and reaching a goal.

But the execution is such that King Rabbit is immediately engaging, while new ideas keep coming as you work through the dozens of puzzles. Pleasingly, the game also increases the challenge so subtly that you barely notice — until you realise you’ve been figuring out a royal bunny’s next moves into the wee small hours.

From the off, it’s obvious Ollie Cats isn’t taking itself seriously. The aim is to ‘ollie’ (jump) an endless number of cats heading in your rad skateboarder’s direction. You can perform all manner of tricks (including grinding along fences when loads of cats suddenly appear), but the game in miserly fashion only bestows a single point per cat cleared, regardless of your amazing skills.

However, you can also be the cat. That’s right – it’s possible to play the game as a black moggie on a board, aiming to become the coolest feline around. There are fewer stunts in this mode, but it’s so ridiculous that the cat version of the game fast became our favorite.

There’s very much an old-school vibe about Sports Hero, and it’s not just the pixelated graphics, with characters so jagged you might cut yourself on their kneecaps.

There’s also the control method, which has you hammer virtual buttons to make the retro athletes sprint, swim or lift weights. You’ll look faintly ridiculous bashing away at your iPad’s display, but there’s something satisfying about such a simple, exhausting control scheme.

Sports Hero trips over the odd hurdle in its quest for a medal with its grindy nature. It very clearly wants you to grab an all-disciplines IAP, and so slowly drips XP your way for unlocks. But even with only a few events available, this is an entertaining title for armchair Olympians who fancy working up a sweat.

In a marked departure from the impressive Phoenix HD and its procedurally generated bullet hell,Phoenix II shoves you through set-piece vertically scrolling shoot ’em up grinders. Every 24 hours, a new challenge appears, tasking you with surviving a number of waves comprising massive metal space invaders belching hundreds of deadly bullets your way.

A single hit to your craft’s core (a small spot at its center) brings destruction, forcing you to memorize attack and bullet patterns and make use of shields and deflectors if you’ve any hope of survival. You do sometimes slam into a brick wall, convinced a later wave is impossible to beat.

To lessen the frustration, there’s always the knowledge you’ll get another crack at smashing new invaders the following day. Regardless, this is a compelling, dazzling and engaging shooter for iPad.

Sharing DNA with Super Hexagon and ALONE…, Barrier X is the kind of game that merrily smacks you in the face for having the audacity to blink.

Hurling you at insane speeds along minimal 3D tracks that some idiot’s peppered with walls, all you have to do is head left and right to avoid crashing. But this isn’t so simple when blazing along at about a million miles per hour.

Comically, Barrier X speeds up every 15 seconds; and if you survive long enough further challenges are unlocked. Suddenly, you’re told to travel through (rather than avoid) certain barriers, and to shoot rivals, all while attempting to not become so much space dust.

Minimal visuals and a thumping soundtrack further add to Barrier X’s brutal charms – it’s an exhilarating, exciting title among the very best of its kind.

If you’ve experienced Colin Lane’s deranged take on wrestling (the decidedly oddball Wrassling), you probably know what you’re in for with Dunkers. In theory, this is side-on one-on-one basketball, but Dunkers is knowingly mad.

You only get two buttons, one of which dodders your player back towards their own basket, while the other lurches them into the air and in the opposite direction. All the while, their arms whirl like a hysterical clock.

You battle as best you can, grabbing the ball from your berserk opponent, fighting your way to the basket, and slam dunking victoriously. The entire thing is ridiculous, almost the antithesis of photo-realistic fare like NBA 2K; but we’d also argue that it’s a lot more fun.

An excellent example in how iteration can improve a game, The Little Fox was almost impossible upon release. But a reduction in speed and some restart points proved transformative, enabling you to immerse yourself in a sweet-natured, great-looking pathfinding arcade outing.

The titular fox is on a quest that takes the bounding carnivore through 13 varied lands. Pathways comprise hexagons littered with collectables and hazards, and at any moment you can only turn left or right or continue straight on.

At the original breakneck pace (still available as an in-game option), this all feels too much. But when slowed down, The Little Fox reveals itself to be a clever, imaginative, fun title, with surprises to be found on every planet the furry critter visits.

It’s hard to imagine a less efficient way of building and maintaining a zoo than what you see in Rodeo Stampede. Armed with a lasso, you foolishly venture into a stampede and leap from animal to animal, attempting to win their hearts by virtue of not being flung to the ground.

You then whisk beaten animals away to a zoo in a massive sky-based craft – the kind of place where you imagine the Avengers might hang out if they gave up crime-fighting and decided to start jailing animals rather than villains.

Despite overly familiar chunky visuals (Crossy Road has a lot to answer for), this fast-paced, breezy game is a lot of fun, with you dragging left and right to avoid blundering into rocks, and lifting your finger to soar into the air, aiming to catch another rampaging beast.

Much like previous entries in the series, Super Stickman Golf 3 finds a tiny golfer dumped in fantastical surroundings. So rather than thwacking a ball about carefully tended fairways and greens, there are castles full of teleporters and a moon base bereft of gravity. The Ryder Cup, this is not.

New to the series is a spin mechanic, for flipping impossible shots off of ceilings and nudging fluffed efforts holewards on the greens. You also get turn-by-turn battles against Game Centre chums and a frenetic multiplayer race mode.

The spendthrift release is limited, though, restricting how many two-player battles you have on the go, locking away downloadable courses beyond the 20 initially built-in, and peppering the game with ads. Even so, you get a lot for nothing, should you be after new side-on golfing larks but not want to pay for the privilege.

Apparently the national sport of Slamdovia, a country where blocky people look like they just stepped out of a Commodore 64, Wrassling is like wrestling combined with a dollop of sheer stupid.

You’re dropped into the ring and must fling your opponents into the inky gloom before they do the same to you. Ridiculous controls (spin your arms with all your might!) and absurdly bouncy physics add to the game’s oddball nature, which will put a smile on your face before it’s promptly smashed into the canvas and then rudely hurled into the air.

With more than a hint of Fruit Ninja about it, Bushido Bear finds a sword-wielding teddy defending the forest against endless waves of evil demons. You get a brief warning about where your assailants will appear, and must quickly drag paths to move your bear about; it’ll then get suitably slashy and stabby, hopefully not blundering into an enemy in the meantime.

It’s a fast-paced affair, and you’ll need swift reactions to survive. Over time, you unlock additional frenzied furry animals, each with their own particular skills. And, amusingly, when a bear is killed, its colleague can be thrown into the fray, ready for some angry ninja bear vengeance!

If you like the idea of golf, but not traipsing around greens in the drizzle, WGT: World Tour Golf is the closest you’ll get to the real thing on your iPad. Courses have been meticulously rebuilt in virtual form, based on thousands of photographs, and WGT’s control scheme is accessible yet also quite punishing.

There’s no mucking about spinning balls in mid-air to alter your shot here – mess up and you’ll know about it, with a score card massively over par. But this is a game that rewards mastery and perseverance, and you feel like a boss once you crack how to land near-perfect shots.

WGT is, mind, a touch ad-heavy at times, but this is countered by there being loads to do, including head-to-head online multiplayer and a range of tournaments to try your hand at.

In Clash Royale, two players battle online, sending out troops to obliterate their opponent’s three towers, while simultaneously protecting their own. It comes across a bit like animated chess, if chess pieces were armed to the teeth and ranged from a giant robot with a huge scythe to an army of skittering skeletons.

The troops you have available come by way of cards you collect, from which you select a deck of eight. In matches, elixir gradually tops up, which can be ‘spent’ deploying said troops, forcing you to manage resources and spot when your opponent might be dry.

Clash Royale is very much a freemium game. You can spend a ton of real-world cash on virtual coins to buy and upgrade cards. However, doing so isn’t really necessary, and we’ve heard of people getting to the very highest levels in the game without spending a penny. But even if you find yourself scrapping in the lower leagues, Clash Royale is loads of fun.

Following in the footsteps of Tomb Raider and Hitman, Uncharted: Fortune Hunter has been squirted into your iPad in puzzle-game form. Hero of the hour Nathan Drake must nab loot by working out how to not-horribly die across dozens of grid-based puzzles. Fortune Hunter lacks the polish and atmosphere of Lara Croft GO and Hitman GO, but it’s still worth grabbing.

The puzzles are smartly designed, and ideal for mobile play, taking only a few minutes each to solve. And if you own the latest PS4 Uncharted, some of the iPad achievements can benefit Drake on your console (even if said benefits might only be a natty new hat).

Tie-ins between indie game companies and major movie houses often end badly, but Disney Crossy Road bucks the trend. It starts off like the original Crossy Road — an endless take on Frogger. Only here, Mickey Mouse picks his way across motorways, train lines and rivers, trying to avoid death by drowning or being splattered across a windscreen.

But unlock new characters (you’ll have several for free within a few games) and you open up further Disney worlds, each with unique visuals and challenges.

In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz dodge tumbling building blocks, whereas the inhabitants of Haunted Mansion are tasked with keeping the lights on and avoiding a decidedly violent suit of armour.

Elsewhere, Inside Out has you dart about collecting memories, which are sucked up for bonus points. And on the iPad, the gorgeous chunky visuals of these worlds really get a chance to shine.

Forget-Me-Not is a distillation of the very best classic arcade games. A little square mooches about procedurally generated mazes, munching flowers, and shooting anything that gets in its way. When the flowers are gone, you grab the key and make for the exit.

It’s a simple concept (as are all the best arcade games), but what makes Forget-Me-Not memorable is how alive everything feels. Varied maze inhabitants regularly beam in, some doddering about while others wage all-out war, with the demented vigour of the most psychotic videogame characters.

The net result is a frenetic neon mash-up of Pac-Man, Rogue, Wizard of Wor and a half-dozen other 1980s classics, but one that manages to match or surpass all of them. That it’s entirely free (of price tag and IAP) makes it iPad gaming’s biggest bargain.

This smashy endless arcade sports title has more than a hint of air hockey about it, but PKTBALL is also infused with the breakneck madness associated with Laser Dog’s brutal iOS games.

It takes place on a tiny cartoon tennis court, with you swiping across the ball to send it back to your opponent. But this game is *really* fast, meaning that although you’ll clock how to play PKTBALL almost immediately, mastering it takes time.

In solo mode, the computer AI offers plenty of challenge, but it’s in multiplayer matches that PKTBALL serves an ace. Two to four people duke it out, swiping like lunatics (and hopefully not hurling the iPad away in a huff, like a modern-day McEnroe, when things go bad).

As ever, there are new characters to unlock, each of which boasts its own court and background music. Our current favourite: a little Game Boy, whose court has a certain famous blocky puzzle game playing in the background.

At first glance, Looty Dungeon comes across like a Crossy Road wannabe. But you soon realise it’s actually a very smartly designed endless dungeon crawler that just happens to pilfer Crossy Road’s control method, chunky visual style, and sense of urgency.

You begin as a tiny stabby knight, scooting through algorithmically generated isometric rooms. You must avoid spikes and chopping axes, outrun a collapsing floor, and dispatch monsters. The action is fast-paced, lots of fun, and challenges your dexterity and ability to think on the move.

As is seemingly law in today’s mobile gaming landscape, Looty Dungeon also nags at the collector in you, offering characters to unlock. But these aren’t just decorative in nature — they have unique weapons, which alter how you play. For example, an archer has better range than the knight, but no defensive shield when up against an angry witch or ravenous zombie.

It’s not every day you get to become a robot superhero, protecting the public in the retro-futuristic Helsinki. But future Finns should be thrilled Byteman is about, because their capital city appears to be chock full of burning buildings, robbers, and villains escaping in helicopters.

Your task is to fly about, using your radar to swoop in and be all heroic, without slamming into a building while doing so. The controls are straightforward (move with your left thumb and ‘speed boost’ with your right), and there’s a handy radar to figure out which cases to prioritise.

It all comes across a bit like a robot superhero Crazy Taxi, albeit one where the valiant android must occasionally head above the clouds to recharge its solar panels. (We bet Captain Marvel never had that problem.)

In the tiny isometric world of Traffic Rush 2, traffic lights are seemingly anathema to the general public. Instead, dangerous crossings are manned by the kind of people who need the steely nerve of an air-traffic controller. Cars rush in, and each can be temporarily stopped with a tap or given a boost with a swipe. Your job is to keep the traffic flowing and avoid a hideous pile-up.

Of course, a hideous pile-up is inevitable, not least when you’re dealing with an increasing number of cars coming from all directions, driven by people who we’re pretty sure have never taken a driving test in their lives.

Fortunately, wreckage is instantly cleared with the tap of a button, enabling you to have another go. Additionally, as is seemingly law these days, Traffic Rush 2 has you collect coins, receive ‘rewards’, and grab prizes from a machine. These enhance the game, adding new vehicles to the mix, and making the crashes a bit more colourful.

Endless 3D avoid ’em ups have been a mainstay on the App Store ever since Cube Runner arrived way back in 2008. Geometry Race, like the older title, is keen on you learning a fixed course over repeat attempts, rather than battling your way through semi-randomised landscapes. Unlike Cube Runner, though, Geometry Race is a visual treat.

For reasons unknown, your spaceship finds itself zooming through worlds packed full of geometric obstacles, such as huge toppling letters and marching cubes. Beyond not colliding with anything, you must grab fuel to recharge your ship and coins that can be used to unlock better spaceships and additional worlds.

The lack of variety may eventually dent the game’s own long-term survival on your device, but for a while Geometry Race is bright and breezy fun.

Although Hectic Space 2 looks like it’s been wrenched kicking and screaming from a 1980’s 8-bit console, this is a thoroughly modern bullet-hell shooter. You slide your finger vertically on the left side of the screen to move your ship and the sole aim is survival, which involves avoiding projectiles while your ship’s automatic weapon blasts anything in your path.

The gaudy graphics oddly prove beneficial, making it easy to spot enemy fire (red — so much red), and are occasionally dazzling when facing off against inventively designed bosses.

You know you’re not sitting in front of an old Atari when a giant skull bounces around the screen, or a bunch of Space Invaders changes formation, becoming a massive gun that fires countless bullets your way.

The original iSlash came across a bit like a thinking man’s Fruit Ninja combined with arcade classic Qix. Each challenge involved slicing off bits of a wooden box, carefully avoiding the shuriken bouncing about within.

iSlash Heroes is more of the same in freemium form, albeit with revamped graphics, a load of new levels, bosses that muck about with the board as you play, and some infrequent irritating social gubbins that occasionally blocks your way for a bit.

Despite some niggles, it remains a smart, engaging arcade effort, which works especially well on the iPad, given that the large screen enables you to be a bit more precise when slicing off those final slivers of wood required to meet your target.

There’s a bold bluntness about Rocket Ski Racing that actually makes it rather endearing. Unlike most iOS freebie racers, it doesn’t muck about with freemium coins, timers, IAP, nor even, frankly, a difficulty curve.

Instead, you’re dumped into a tough competition across 24 icy courses, pitting your wits against ten computer controlled opponents.

The main aim in every battle is to keep to the racing line and not crash. That’s easier said than done, because Rocket Ski Racing is fast, and the tracks rapidly ramp up in difficulty, introducing loops, inconvenient walls of ice, and moving gates you must pass through.

On your first go, you’ll probably languish at the foot of the league table, but perseverance reaps rewards.

This block-merging puzzle game is based on dominoes, where you place pieces on the board, and when three or more identical tiles sit next to each other they’re sucked into a single piece with a larger number.

Should three or more sixes merge, they create an M. Merge three of those and they obliterate a three-by-three section of the board, giving you temporary breathing space.

The claustrophobic nature of Merged! means you must think carefully when placing every piece, and try to create cascades that will quickly increment tile values. It’s a bit too random at times, and has some distasteful freemium trappings, but otherwise this is a fine puzzler for your iPad.

At some point, developers will run out of new ways to present endless runners, but that moment hasn’t yet arrived. Surfingers tries something a bit different, marrying the genre with a kind of stripped-back breakneck match puzzler. You must line up the blocky wave you’re currently on to match whatever’s coming next, lest your surfer abruptly wipe-out.

At first, this is leisurely and simple, with you swiping up and down, avoiding maniacs in low-flying hot-air balloons, and collecting stars. But before long, you’re two-finger swiping to get past massive rocks and buried spaceships, surfing across snowy mountains and sand dunes, and thinking a dip in the shallows might have been a smarter move. And it turns out even being an ice-cool crocodile riding a rubber duck won’t save you if those shapes don’t line up.

Touchscreens have opened up many new ways to play games, but scribbling with a finger is perhaps the most natural. And that’s essentially all you do in Magic Touch, which sounds pretty reductive – right up until you start playing.

The premise is that you’re a wizard, fending off invading nasties who all oddly use balloons to parachute towards their prize. Match the symbol on any balloon and it pops, potentially causing a hapless intruder to meet the ground rather more rapidly than intended. Initially, this is all very simple, but when dozens of balloons fill your field of vision, you’ll be scrawling like crazy, desperately fending off the invasion to keep the wizard gainfully employed.

The first thing that strikes you about Into the Dim is that it transforms your iPad into a giant Game Boy – at least from a visual standpoint. Its chunky yellowed graphics hark back to handheld gaming’s past; but to some extent, this is also true of Into the Dim’s mechanics.

It’s a turn-based RPG, featuring a boy and his dog exploring dungeons, outwitting enemies, and uncovering a mystery. But whereas most modern mobile fare offers procedurally generated levels, Into the Dim’s dungeons have all been carefully individually designed. It rewards planning, strategic thinking, and patience; and although the game’s finite nature means it can be beaten, doing so will make you feel like a boss, rather than a player being put through the ‘random mill’ time and time again.

Taking the most famous video game character of all and shoving him into an endless freemium title could have ended disastrously. Fortunately, Pac-Man 256 is by the people behind Crossy Road – and it’s just as compelling.

In Pac-Man 256, our rotund hero finds himself beyond the infamous level 256 glitch, which has become an all-consuming swarm of broken code that must be outrun. Pac-Man must therefore speed through the endless maze, munching dots, avoiding ghosts, and making use of power-ups dotted about the place.

And there aren’t just power pellets this time round – Pac-Man can fry ghosts with lasers, or implement stealth technology to move through his spectral foes as if they weren’t even there.

Routing cabling in the real world is a source of fury, and so it might not be the smartest procedure to make into a game played on a device with a glass screen. But Aux B turns out to be a lot of fun, routing INs and OUTs, across increasingly large and complex patch boards, striving to make music blare forth.

There are 80 levels, although towards the end, you wonder whether someone should have a quiet word with the gig organiser and suggest a set-up that’s a wee bit simpler. (And once you’re done with the 80, the game continues randomising levels forever, placing you in a weirdly entertaining mixing desk ‘purgatory’.)

Very occasionally, free games appear that are so generous you wonder what the catch is. Cally’s Caves 3 is rather Metroid, except the hero of the hour is a little girl who has pigtails, stupid parents who keep getting kidnapped, and a surprisingly large arsenal of deadly weapons. She leaps about, blasting enemies, and conquering bosses. Weapons are levelled up simply by shooting things with them, and the eight zones take some serious beating — although not as much as the legions of grunts you’re shooting at.

It’s always the way — you’re looking for work, armed with your useless degree, and all that’s available is a job in a sweltering chocolate factory, under the watchful eye of an angry penguin overseer. At least that’s the story in Coolson’s Artisanal Chocolate Alphabet, which hangs an absurdly addictive word game on this premise. Sort chocolate letters from a conveyor belt into boxes with slots, creating words while doing so; make your boss slightly less angry by spelling out seafood whenever possible; and don’t let too much chocolate fall into the trash!

The notion of a freemium on-rails Crazy Taxi must seem like sacrilege to Dreamcast fans. And yet although a serviceable port of the original arcade game exists, it feels a bit awkward on a touchscreen device. Surprisingly, Crazy Taxi City Rush manages to capture some of the original’s spirit and madness.

You belt along city streets, picking up fares and dropping them off within tight time limits, all while cheesy rock music is hammered into your ears. There’s more than a whiff of freemium, but if you’re prepared to grind a bit and spend wisely on upgrades, you won’t have to dig into your real-world wallet.

In a world of exploitative freemium gaming, Crossy Road shows an entire industry how things could be done. The basic gameplay is endless Frogger — avoid traffic, navigate rivers by way of floating logs, and try to not get splattered across the front of a speeding train. But the genius is in triggering people’s collector mentality. During the game, you pick up coins, which can be pumped into a one-armed bandit that dispenses new characters. These often dramatically change how the game looks and plays. You’ll want to collect them all. You can of course buy them outright, but Crossy Road is generous in flinging coins your way. Nice.

Time travel weirdness meets the morning rush hour in Does Not Commute. You get a short story about a character, and guide their car to the right road. Easy! Only the next character’s car must be dealt with while avoiding the previous one. And the next. Before long, you’re a dozen cars in and weaving about like a lunatic, desperately trying to avoid a pile-up. For free, you get the entire game, but with the snag that you must always start from scratch, rather than being able to use checkpoints that appear after each zone. (You can unlock these for a one-off payment of $2.99/£2.99/AU$4.49.)

With its numbered sliding squares and soaring scores, there’s more than a hint of Threes! about Imago. In truth, Threes! remains the better game, on the basis that it’s more focussed, but Imago has plenty going for it. The idea is to merge pieces of the same size and colour, which when they get too big explode into smaller pieces that can be reused.

The clever bit is each of these smaller pieces retains the score of the larger block. This means that with smart thinking, you can amass colossal scores that head into the billions. The game also includes daily challenges with different success criteria, to keep you on your toes.

Pool for massive show-offs, with the table’s pockets removed, Magnetic Billiards is all about smacking balls about in a strategic manner. Those that are the same colour stick together; the aim is to connect them all, preferably into a bonus shape, whereupon they vanish. Balls of different colours must not collide, but can ‘buzz’ each other for bonus points; further points come from cushion bounces. For free, you get the ‘classic’ level set, with 20 tables. If you want more, a $1.99/£1.49/AU$2.99 ‘skeleton key’ IAP unlocks everything else in the game.

With iPads lacking tactile controls, they should be rubbish for platform games. But savvy developers have stripped back the genre, creating hybrid one-thumb auto-runner/platformers. These are entirely reliant on careful timing, the key element of more traditional fare.

Mr. Crab further complicates matters by wrapping its levels around a pole. The titular crustacean ambles back and forth, scooping up baby crabs, and avoiding the many enemies lurking about the place. The end result is familiar and yet fresh. You get a selection of diverse levels for free, and additional packs are available via IAP.

Having played Planet Quest, we imagine whoever was on naming duties didn’t speak to the programmer. If they had, the game would be called Awesome Madcap Beam-Up One-Thumb Rhythm Action Insanity — or possibly something a bit shorter. Anyway, you’re in a spaceship, prodding the screen to repeat beats you’ve just heard. Doing so beams up dancers on the planet’s surface; get your timing a bit wrong and you merely beam-up their outfits; miss by a lot and you lose a life. To say this one’s offbeat would be a terrible pun, but entirely accurate; it’d also be true to say this is the most fun rhythm action game on iPad — and it doesn’t cost a penny.

A blocky take on classic vertically scrolling shoot ’em ups, Shooty Skies has flying-ace animals in biplanes battling endless squadrons of internet memes, flying robots, and deranged bosses. The controls are simple, but infuse the entire game with a sense of risk-versus-reward: drag to shoot, but stay still (and therefore instantly become extremely vulnerable) to charge a mega weapon. Fortunately, you can also grab gift boxes to gain a temporary wingman, which is essential when battling giant bosses like an ink-spewing headphone-wearing octopus, or an American Eagle that spits out nuclear missiles and ‘patriotism’ like they’re going out of fashion.

The sausage dog in Silly Sausage in Meatland appears to have fallen into the same radioactive sludge as a bunch of Marvel superheroes. He can stretch, seemingly forever, and stick to walks. This stands him in good stead for navigating horizontally scrolling landscapes full of spiky doom. Come a cropper and you go back to the start, unless you unlock restart points by using gems collected along the way. The game will also let you watch an ad, if you’re running low on bling, which seems fair enough. (We’ve seen people grumbling you’re later ‘forced’ to watch ads, because there aren’t enough gems. That misses the point: Silly Sausage is about risk versus reward — not unlocking every restart point — and occasionally a dog sniffing its own behind.)

We imagine the creators of Smash Hit really hate glass. Look at it, sitting there with its stupid, smug transparency, letting people see what’s on the other side of it. Bah! Smash it all! Preferably with ball-bearings while flying along corridors! And that’s Smash Hit — fly along, flinging ball-bearings, don’t hit any glass face-on, and survive for as long as possible.

There are 50 rooms in all, but cheapskates start from scratch each time; pay $1.99/£1.99/AU$2.99 for the premium unlock and you get checkpoints, stats, iCloud sync, and alternative game modes.

The iPad has plenty of fast, playable racing games, but it took an awfully long time for a decent kart racer to appear on the platform. That was Sega’s Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, and follow-up Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is even better. You race across land, sea and air, tracks dynamically shifting after each lap. It looks great, handles almost perfectly, and gives you loads to do. IAP does stink up the place a bit, notably if you want to quickly buy characters or burn through the game, but otherwise this is the best free racer this side of Asphalt 8.

One of the most innovative multiplayer titles we’ve ever played, Spaceteam has you and a bunch of friends in a room, each staring at a rickety and oddball spaceship control panel on your device’s display. Instructions appear, which need a fast response if your ship is to avoid being swallowed up by an exploding star. But what you see might not relate to your screen and controls. Spaceteam therefore rapidly descends into a cacophony of barked demands and frantic searches across control panels (which helpfully start falling to bits), in a last-ditch attempt to ‘set the Copernicus Crane to 6’ or ‘activate the Twinmill’ and avoid fiery death.

A somewhat chessish two-player effort, Outwitters finds teams of angry sea creatures battling to the death, first helpfully arming them with surprisingly dangerous weapons. (It turns out crabs eschew claws when they’ve a mortar cannon to hand.)

Despite the cartoonish visuals, this is a deep and immersive strategy experience. Games are further complicated by a ‘fog of war’, which means units cannot see any further than they can move. This makes Outwitters tough to master but more rewarding on doing so and chalking up your first victories.

Golf is dull — it’s pretty much people hitting a ball with a stick. But imagine if golf was played in massive castles. Or on the moon. Or inside a giant ice palace. And everyone wore strange hats that gave them magical powers.

Well, wonder no more, because that’s Super Stickman Golf 2 in a nutshell, and it’s a blast, whether you’re playing solo, chipping away at your best scores, or delve into multiplayer. There, you can pit you skills against a friend in asynchronous two-player battles, or thwack away at breakneck pace in a demented online race mode.

The best puzzle game on mobile, Threes! has you slide cards about a grid, merging pairs to create ever higher numbers. The catch is all cards slide as one, unless they cannot move; additionally, each turn leads to a new card in a random empty slot on the edge you swiped away from. It’s all about careful management of a tiny space.

On launch, Threes! was mercilessly cloned, with dozens of alternatives flooding iTunes, but 2048 and its ilk lack the charm and fine details that made Threes! so great in the first place. And now there’s Threes! Free, where you watch ads to top up a ‘free goes’ bin, there’s no excuse for going with inferior pretenders.

“Expect retro graphics and megatons of enemies,” says the developer about this twin-stick shooter, adding: “Don’t expect a story”. With its vector graphics and Robotronish air, PewPew brings to mind Geometry Wars and Infinity Field, but without a price tag.

Despite being free, PewPew nonetheless boasts five modes of shooty goodness. These range from the aptly named ‘Pandemonium’, where enemies spin around the screen on dying, to the more thoughtful (but still manic) ‘Chromatic Conflict’, where you can only shoot foes whose colour matches your ship.

It turns out if you’re a sheep that thinks the grass is greener, you should check out the other side of the fence first. In Flockwork, wooly heroes make a break for freedom, but end up immersed in a kind of ruminant hell. Your task: help the sheep escape.

The tiny snag is that all the sheep move as one, meaning you must use a combination of quick thinking, finger gymnastics and fast reactions to ensure they don’t drown, get eaten by clockwork wolves, or end up getting stuck behind walls like wooly idiots.

At some point, a total buffoon decreed that racing games should be dull and grey, on grey tracks, with grey controls. Gameloft’s Asphalt series dispenses with such foolish notions, along with quite a bit of reality.

Here, in Asphalt 8, you zoom along at ludicrous speeds, drifting for miles through exciting city courses, occasionally being hurled into the air to perform stunts that absolutely aren’t acceptable according to the car manufacturer’s warranty. It’s admittedly a bit grindy, but if you tire of zooming about the tracks in this game, there’s no hope for you.

QatQi starts off a bit like Scrabble in the dark, until you figure out that you’re really immersed in a kind of Roguelike mash-up. So although the aim is to make crosswords from a selection of letters, you’re also tasked with exploring dungeons to find score-boosting stars and special tiles.

This results in QatQi being a bit like a puzzler on top of a puzzler. You must balance the best works with the ability to move on, trying hard to not get backed into a corner. Undos soften the blow if you mess up, although you’ll need IAP to buy more.

Tiny people in a tiny skyscraper need you to feed then tiny sushi and do other tiny tasks. Things can, inevitably, be sped up by not-so-tiny IAP cash infusions, but if you’re a patient sort, and keen on micromanagement games, Tiny Tower is a charming, enjoyable title that will eat many tiny moments out of your day.

The basic aim of Tilt to Live is simple: avoid the red dots, either by cunning dodging and weaving or by triggering explosive devices in the arena. At the time, this wasn’t especially innovative, and Tilt to Live has itself since spawned two (paid) sequels.

Even so, the game manages to appeal, largely due to its polish and sense of humour — the latter of which is especially handy when you miss your high score by moments during a particularly gruelling game and fancy flinging your device out of the window. You get the basic mode for free, and others can be unlocked by in-app purchase.

It’s a case of timey-wimey-puzzley-wuzzley as Doctor Who: Legacy aims to show you that your iPad is bigger on the inside, able to house intergalactic warfare. The game itself is a gem-swapper not a million miles away from Puzzle Quest, but all the Doctor Who trappings will make it a must for fans of the show – or Daleks fine-tuning their tactics regarding how to finally beat their nemesis, mostly via the use of strategically placed coloured orbs.

10 Pin Shuffle Pro Bowling smashes together ten-pin bowling and shuffleboard. Rather than hurling a heavy ball down an alley, you slide a massive puck towards the pins. Of that paid title’s three modes, the best is 10 Pin Poker, which adds poker to the mix.

Get a spare or strike and, respectively, you’re awarded one or two cards. At the end of the tenth frame, whoever of the two players has the best hand wins. And rather generously, this mode is given away entirely for free in 10 Pin Shuffle Bowling. Strike!

Fans of the ancient Pitfall series on the Atari might feel a bit short-changed, given that this comeback in the shape of a Temple Run clone diverges wildly from the platforming action of the originals. However, it’s one of the best-looking endless runners on iOS, and if you persevere there are exciting mine-cart and motorbike sections to master.

The only snag is the usual freemium trappings, notably having to fling virtual cash at the game to pick up where you left off.

There’s a touch of Angry Birds about To-Fu 2, at least if the birds were covered in something yucky that glued them to any walls they collided with. Said stickiness is the name of the game here, getting the squidgy hero to level’s end rather than impaling him on the literally strewn spikes.

Much of the game’s smarts comes from clever level design, which will challenge and frustrate in equal measure. You could say the game’s quite sticky.

It’s not the most interesting-looking game in the world, but luckily the magic of Choice of the Dragon is in its witty prose. Playing as a multiple-choice text adventure, akin to an extremely stripped-back RPG, this game is an amusing romp. It also, through a combination of stats and branching pathways with more than two options, boasts more depth than many more recent stabs at text-based iOS adventuring.

When we think of extreme sports, jogging isn’t the first that comes to mind, although it might be now we’ve experienced Grim Joggers Freestyle. The game’s essentially Canabalt, but instead of one guy leaping across grey rooftops, you get a string of joggers trying desperately to survive in a surreal alien world.

Just that change from a single leaper to a string of nutters changes the game immensely. Not only is it tougher keeping multiple runners alive, but the more that survive to a checkpoint, the higher your score will be.

With Tiny Wings having spent a large amount of time troubling the App Store charts, we’re surprised it took so long to make it to the iPad. All along, Pilot Winds was the next best thing, and it’s free.

Instead of a fat bird sliding down hills, you’re a daredevil penguin skier, and while the game’s inspiration is clear, it has plenty of tricks of its own, such as alternate pilots to play as, and a time-attack mode that rewards combos.

It’s hard not to love Frotz when you see its App Store description ‘warn’ that it involves “reading, thinking, and typing” and that if you “just want to blow stuff up”, it’s not the app for you. And that’s very true, given that this is an interactive fiction player.

You load titles written for the Z-Machine format (such as the famous Zork trilogy), and explore virtual worlds by typing in commands such as ‘go north’ and ‘put the long dangly bit into the Tea Substitute’. As you might expect, Frotz works particularly well on an iPad (rather than the smaller screen of an iPhone), and it adds a menu for common commands to speed you along a bit.

Trainyard Express is a puzzle game which tasks you with getting trains between stations of the same colour, by laying track. It starts simply, with you dragging a track between two stations only a few grid spaces apart. But the puzzles rapidly increase in complexity, adding colour mixing and obstacles that require you to fashion brain-bendingly complex snaking tracks.

In all, you get over 60 puzzles, and there’s not even overlap with the game’s commercial sibling Trainyard.

In Triple Town, you have to think many moves ahead to succeed. It’s a match game where trios of things combine to make other things, thereby giving you more space on the board to evolve your town. For example, three bushes become a tree, and three trees become a hut.

All the while, roaming bears and ninjas complicate matters, blocking squares on the board. At times surreal, Triple Town is also brain-bending and thoroughly addictive. Free moves slowly replenish, but you can also unlock unlimited moves via IAP.

The clue’s in the title — there’s a quest, and it involves quite a lot of punching. There’s hidden depth, though — the game might look like a screen-masher, but Punch Quest is all about mastering combos, perfecting your timing, and making good use of special abilities.

The game looks superb, too, marrying old-school pixel art with lashings of character. The in-game currency’s also very generous, so if you like the game reward the dev by grabbing some IAP.

Bejeweled Blitz is the online incarnation of PopCap’s hugely popular gem-swap game, and it looks fab on the iPad’s screen. As a freemium title, there’s a whiff of IAP (either grind or buy coins to unlock power-ups, or you’ve no chance of topping the high-score tables), but you’ll still be addicted all the same.

“Use the magnet to attract the razor to shave the face!” explains Magnetic Shaving Derby, presumably having first hidden any safety instructions from view. And that’s precisely what you do. Drag the magnet around, and the razor follows. The aim is to shave fast-growing hair and avoid slicing open anything that really shouldn’t be sliced open.

The result is an experience best described as completely bonkers, with a side order of “don’t try this at home, kids, unless you enjoy the sight of blood”.

Fairway Solitaire is a perfect example of what happens when you marry simple gameplay with a bit of character. On its own, the basic card system would be fine: unlock face-down cards by selecting those one higher or lower than the current one in the draw pile. But the addition of golf scoring and a crazed gopher out for blood turns this into a surprisingly enjoyable and original title.

X-Motorcycle happily offers two video game cliches for the price of none: the speeding hero (this time on a motorbike), who cannot slow down, and inexplicably giant fruit that appears to be an immensely important currency. All you need to do is help the hapless rider change lanes to avoid crashy disaster.

The result is a fast, playable game reminiscent of old-school thrills filtered down to their essence and squirted into your iPad.

Pinball games tend to be divided into two camps. One aims for a kind of realism, aping real-world tables. The other takes a more arcade-oriented approach. Zen Pinball is somewhere in-between, marrying realistic physics with tables that come to life with animated 3D figures.

Loads of tables are available via IAP, including some excellent Star Wars and Marvel efforts. But for free you get access to the bright and breezy Sorcerer’s Lair, which, aside from some dodgy voice acting, is a hugely compelling and fast-paced table with plenty of missions and challenges to discover.

With a game called Word Solitaire, you might expect a kind of solitaire game that has you form words rather than use standard cards. And that’s exactly what you get here – sorry, anyone waiting for a huge surprise. However, this is not a bad thing, because Word Solitaire HD is a relaxing, entertaining title.

The basic campaign mode has a huge 250 levels to try, and you can also compete against other players worldwide in a daily puzzle, or configure one-off solo sessions in Quick Play mode.

In Royal Revolt the king is dead and his siblings have stolen his kingdom while the prince was at school. Unfortunately for them, he was studying magic and is now out for revenge. The game itself is a real-time-strategy effort with some seriously cute and well-animated graphics.

There is, admittedly, some grinding if you want to reach later levels. But we found with some careful upgrading of your troops, you needn’t dip into your wallet. (Do, though, avoid the not-great sequel.)

Who knew you could have such fun with a five-by-five grid of letters? In Letterpress, you play friends via Game Center, making words to colour lettered squares. Surround any and they’re out of reach from your friend’s tally. Cue: word-tug-o’-war, last-minute reversals of fortune, and arguments about whether ‘qat’ is a real word or not. (It is.)

This one had a dubious start, initially named Smuggle Truck and featuring immigrants being smuggled across the US border. One swift rejection by Apple later and the game swapped immigrants for cuddly toys, which is significantly funnier anyway.

The game itself is a side-on Trials-oriented title, with you traversing increasingly tricky terrain, trying to keep your cuddly toys from spilling out of the truck and getting lost forever. It’s very silly and lots of fun.

With almost limitless possibilities in videogames, it’s amazing how many are drab grey and brown affairs. Frisbee Forever 2 (like its similarly impressive forerunner) is therefore a breath of fresh air with its almost eye-searing vibrance.

There’s a kind of Nintendo vibe – a sense of fun that continues through to the gameplay, which is all about steering a frisbee left and right, collecting stars strewn along winding paths. And these are a world away from the parks you’d usually fling plastic discs about in – here, you’re hurled along roller-coaster journeys through ancient ruins and gorgeous snowy hillsides.

There’s a point in chess where you sometimes wish your knight would just give your opponent’s bishop a thoroughly good trampling. Sadly, few chess games do such things (the ancient Battlechess being an exception), but Hero Academy takes the idea and runs with it. It’s primarily a turn-based two-player effort, where you wipe out your opponent’s tiny army or smash their crystals to bits.

There’s plenty of depth, due to the varied boards and teams that find wizards attacking knights, and demons defending their turf against samurais. And for solo play, the game bundles a bunch of puzzles to try your wits at.

Proving that great ideas never die, Shadow Era brings trading cards to life on the iPad. What you lose in not being able to smell the ink and manually shuffle the deck, you gain in not being able to lose the cards or have them eaten by the dog. It’s all very swords-and-fantasy oriented, and just like in real life you can also buy extra cards if you feel the need.

A game about blending colours, which doesn’t feature an Old English Sheepdog barely avoiding tipping paint everywhere? Missed opportunity! Still, what you’re left with in Blendoku is a beautifully minimal game that tasks you with putting coloured squares in order. It starts off simple, but the level design will soon have you sobbing into your crayons.

You know, if infinite zombies were running towards us, we’d leg it in the opposite direction. Not so in Into the Dead, where you battle on until your inevitable and bloody demise.

The game’s oddly dream-like (well, nightmare-like), given that you meander left and right, almost floating through the hellish landscape. Still, perseverance at least rewards you with new weapons, such as a noisy chainsaw. VVRRRMMM! (Splutch!)

Score! takes the basic premise of a million path-drawing games and wraps it around classic footie goals. The combination works really well, with you attempting to recreate the ball’s path in the best goals the world’s ever seen. Failure results in a baying crowd and, frequently, improbable goalkeeping heroics.

The game’s since had a sequel, but we prefer the original, which is less aggressive in its freemium model.

The original Monsters Ate My Condo was like Jenga and a match-three game shoved into a blender with a massive dollop of crazy. Super Monsters Ate My Condo is a semi-sequel which takes a time-attack approach, shoe-horning the bizarre tower-building/floor-matching/monster-feeding into a tiny amount of time, breaking your brain in the process.

Essentially, you aim to manage like-colored apartments in a single-column tower, flinging unwanted floors into the maws of flanking beasts. Lob gems their way and they’ll power-up in a suitably odd manner. Give them the wrong colour, and they’ll have a massive tantrum, potentially destroying all your hard work.

Argh! That’s pretty much what you’ll be yelling on a regular basis on playing this endless racer. Cubed Rally Redline shouldn’t be difficult. You can go left or right on five clearly defined lanes, and there’s a ‘time brake’ for going all slow-motion, Matrix-style, to weave through tricky gaps; but you’ll still be smashing into cows, dinosaurs and bridges before you know it.

You’ll persevere if you’re particularly bloody minded, or just to see what other visual treats the developer’s created for hardcore players.

Dots looks and feels like the sort of thing Jony Ive might play on his downtime. A stark regimented set of coloured dots awaits, and like-coloured ones can be joined, whereupon they disappear, enabling more to fall into the square well. The aim: clear as many as possible – with the largest combos you can muster – in 60 seconds.

Plenty of additional modes and themes are on offer if you want to buy some IAP. Avoid sequel Two Dots, though, which doubles down on freemium to an irksome degree.

In Smash Cops, you got to be the good guy, bringing down perps, mostly by ramming them into oblivion. Now in Smash Bandits it’s your chance to be a dangerous crim, hopping between vehicles and leaving a trail of destruction in your wake. Smartly, this can all be done with a single finger, which is all you need to steer, drive and smash.

The game also amusingly includes the A-Team van and a gadget known only as the Jibba Jabba. We love it when a plan comes together!

If you liked this, then make sure you check out our best free iPad apps roundup!


Differentz Ways of Fun

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