Sunday, May 26, 2013

Xbox One...possibly the worst "gaming" console in history

Microsoft is arguably the most unscrupulous, corrupt, monopolistic modern company out there these days. That's really saying something when you compare it to Apple's bullying lawsuit tactics, Google's potential privacy violations, and just about anything Big Oil is doing. MS has been on an odd up and down streak for a while. They do something decent and then follow it up with something disasterous. A good example is following up the wildly successful Windows 7 with the drastic, highly polarizing changes of Windows 8.

So when rumors began floating around about the sequel to the Xbox 360, I pretty much figured things were going to get hairy. First off, let's not even get into what was actually announced or specs or drawbacks. Let's just do a comparison between the appearance of the 360 to the One.

That's the One at top. No, it's not a CD player from the 1980's or the Philips CD-i, that's the actual console. Compare it against the 360 Slim. The new model 360 isn't the pinnacle of art, but it's more modern looking and has the nice touch of actually telling you its name. How nice of it. 

So right off the bat, this console isn't something you're going to be showing off to your friends. How about specs though? Surely this thing must be powerful right? Well yes and no. Comparing it against the 360, the One would thoroughly thrash its predecessor. It packs an eight core processor, 8 GB DDR3 RAM shared between the system and the Radeon GPU, Blu-Ray drive (finally followed Sony's lead eh?), 500 GB hard drive, and support for 4K video output and 7.1 surround sound. Pretty good? Well, not so much when compared to the Playstation 4. 

This is a comparison sheet of the Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Playstation 4. As you can see, Playstation 4's GPU is about 33% more powerful and its system memory is over twice as fast and has nearly three times the bandwidth. The really depressing part about it is the chips are fundamentally the same in most ways. 

So maybe the specs aren't top notch? That didn't stop the Playstation 2 from dominating its generation even when more powerful systems arrived. Surely, it can't all be bad. No, in fact, it gets much, much worse. Let's go play by play on the announcements for this system:

All games must be installed to the hard drive - PC gamers have dealt with this for years, but consoles should be simple. Installation only happened on the PS3 because of the slow read speed on the Blu-Ray drive. Newer drives are three times faster so there's no reason installation needs to happen.

The hard drive is non-removable - Eh? So in addition to forcing me to install games onto the hard drive, I can't even replace it if it gets full. The only "bright" side is that the console will allow you to attach external hard drives over USB 3.0. However, you'll likely need to have a 7200 rpm minimum or I'm guessing you'll potentially have latency issues during gaming. Not sure on this so I'll have to do a little more research.

You're forced to have the console connected to the internet at all times - Microsoft says the console needs the internet for the best experience possible. They say the console only checks for internet connection once every 24 hours. They also go on to say that single player games will be unaffected if you lose your connection...until, you know, it tries to validate your connection later. Then, you're screwed. Lots of bullshit double talk here.

The Kinect is required to be connected and remains listening at all times - Microsoft says the Kinect can be turned off by the user but is always listening even when turned off so you can give it voice commands. Once again, double talk. Something is or it isn't when it comes to basic equipment. We're not talking quantum mechanics here. The sheer fact that you have to have the Kinect is annoying enough.

The word on used games is a clusterfuck - Used gaming has been the apparent bane of the gaming industry. How dare consumers sell and resell things they have bought for themselves? As we all know, used cars nearly destroyed the automobile industry. No, wait, they didn't. So what did Microsoft do here? Well, approximately the same thing they did in the PC gaming industry.

Now, those games that you have installed are locked to your account. So while you could theoretically go to a friend's house and install your game and play with them, if you log out of the account, they're stuck with several GB of worthless data. So how would one even deal with used games? Well, details are sketchy at this point, but it's rumored that you will be able to sell your rights to say Gamestop and a certain percentage of the used game sales with go to the developers (more likely MS though given their greed). 

They've also said once the game is installed on a friend's console, they could buy it at a reduced cost, effectively as it is used. The cost? No one is saying yet till E3 this year. Rumors have even said it will be full price. What it all amounts to? The gaming industry is trying to destroy Gamestop and used games. Is it legal? Well, perhaps. It's hard to say what one classifies games as. Are they considered computer software or are they considered forms of entertainment like movies? If they are the former then yes it's legal as computer software is exempted from First Sale Doctrine (a legal reason people can sell their belongings to others without intervention by outside forces). If it's the latter however, and games are included in First Sale Doctrine, boy oh boy are the lawsuits going to come flying. 

There are other pet peeves with the Xbox One I have are mostly minor and not worth mentioning. Basically, the system is more of an entertainment system than a gaming console. What does it amount to? Microsoft is trying to grasp on to the digital entertainment market long since cornered by Apple, Google, and Amazon. Their PC market is shrinking rapidly and adoption rates of Windows 8 and Phone are abysmal. Are we seeing the beginning of the end of Microsoft? Unlikely, but potentially possible. Android is now showing up on laptops and Google's software is tightly integrated with its environment and costs significantly less than say Office. 

All in all, Microsoft has seemingly gone out of their way to make the process of owning a gaming console as painful as possible. Is there a reason why? Well, my contemplation was the change from PowerPC architecture in the CPU to x86-64. I assume they are expecting people to hack the console and basically steal games by buying them, installing them, and returning them. And they're are right. It's going to happen, but only BECAUSE they chose this route. A gaming console should be as simple as turning it on, inserting a disk, and playing till you're too tired to see. The Xbox One is not a gaming console. As a journalist put it, it's the equivalent to Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose. Welcome to the next crash in the gaming industry.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A look at the PS Vita...

This is a re-post and modified version of a review for my PS Vita

Looking at the system initially, the overall shape of the Vita is much rounder than its predecessor the PSP. The dimensions of the Vita are just a little bigger in every way compared to the PSP. The weight of the Vita (3G version for this post) is pretty the same as the original PSP. However, it feels lighter in the hand owing to the larger size (creating greater weight distribution) and a lack of a metal chassis. It's very shiny and extremely prone to smudges. It lacks any coating to prevent smudges so bring a cleaning cloth. You're going to need it.

For space accommodation, the Vita does a very good job with what it has. The dual joysticks only stick out about a quarter inch from any other button. Obviously, the large 5" touch screen takes up the majority of the front. Aside from the joysticks and screen, the left side of the front contains the standard directional pad and the Playstation button which serves as the equivalent of the home key from the PSP. This button also glows blue when in standby and orange when charging. On the right side you have the Start, Select, and standard four button set found on all Playstation products. This is where I run into a bit of issues. The four button set feels very cramped (though they have great feedback) and playing for extended periods of time can really hurt. The Start and Select button are placed awkwardly below the shape buttons making them difficult to get at when you're playing a game. I personally feel they would have been better suited below the screen like the PSP. There's certainly plenty of bezel to work with. There's also a 0.3 MP camera cleverly placed above the shape buttons. It's built into the system and covered with the glossy plastic so there's no risk of scratching the camera directly.

On the top rim you have the Power, Volume Keys, card slot for games, shoulder buttons, and output for accessories. The power and volume keys appear to be made of metal and look very striking on first glance. Both the accessory and game slot ports have covers which I appreciate at it keeps them dust free. The shoulder buttons are clear and have excellent feedback. They really feel like controller buttons. Overall this area is very well thought out.

The left side and bottom edge contain the SIM card slot on the left (only on the 3G model), headphone jack, microphone port, charging port, and Vita storage card slot. There's not much to say here, but I'm still disappointed in Sony with going with a proprietary card as opposed to the norm. There's no reason you couldn't have a regular microSD card here. The only reason they are doing it is because the Vita is selling at a loss and the cards help recoup costs. On the back side you have the rear 0.3 MP camera, the touch pad which takes up most of the space, and two oval shaped indentations. The indentations are meant as spots for your hands to hold the Vita so you don't disrupt the rear touch pad during gaming. However, in my experience, this made hold the Vita much harder. It's true you can play like this, but this just hastens the cramping of your hands.

Overall I'm giving the physical design of the Vita an 8.5. I'm taking points off because of the cramped shape buttons, placement of the start and select, and overall smudginess of the glossy plastic.

Turning the Vita on, you're greeted with the ultra colorful OLED screen. This is definitely one of the best selling points of the handheld. The Vita's extremely responsive touch screen is used to navigate the "bubble" style menus. You'll see some nods here and there to Android in the appearance. I'll admit I was leery at first of the bubble style they chose. I thought the XMB system the PS3 and PSP had was wonderful, but that wouldn't take advantage of the touch screen and I suppose diminish the system somewhat. Still, it works wonderfully.

Flipping between the home screens is fast as is opening menus. The qHD screen shows fine level details on everything. The ability to stop what you are doing by pressing the PS button and navigating to something else on the fly is excellent. However, some elements of the system seem very counter intuitive. For instance, there's no way to navigate or find files on the system itself, nor can you just plug and play. Instead, you're forced to use a program called content manager to do mundane tasks. Also, there's no way to determine exactly how much battery life you have, only a rough estimate based on the little icon at the top. None of these things are unfix-able  In fact, a software update would take care of them so I'm not too frustrated, but I would like to know what exactly is using up my memory card.

Overall, the replacement for the XMB is pretty passable. However, it is the one time I was hoping the OLED wasn't there. Even on the lowest brightness setting, the colors are almost painful to the eye. Still, the new menu system works and is very stable. Giving it an 8, more if Sony updates the system some.

Internally, the quad core CPU and GPU are a beast of a combination. There's been no word on frequency sets, but the chipset listed runs from 800 MHz to 2 GHz. I'm betting it's running at 1 GHz right now, with some options to increase later on like they did with the PSP. The 512 MB of RAM and 128 MB of RAM is decent, but I just feel like they skimped here. 1 GB of RAM really could have done the system some good. 

Outside of the system's engine, you have all the usual suspects: Bluetooth, GPS (3G model only), Wifi b-g-n, 3G, and Sixaxis motion control. Curiously, however, is no vibration. I figured Sony would have went for this considering it's in every modern smartphone and their controllers. Alas, I assume it was passed on due to space or battery concerns.

Speaking of batteries, I'm happy to say that the battery for the Vita lasts quite long. They said 4-5 hours of gameplay, but I'm getting longer. I keep the Bluetooth and 3G off, plus the brightness low and I usually get 6-7 hours of game time for Vita games and even longer for PSP games. The standby feature is awesome. The ability to push the power button and pause the action, even in the middle of a cutscene, is great. The standby time is excellent too. You can put this system into standby for almost a day or more and come back for a little gaming afterwards. Sony did a great job here, but I'm disappointed with the built in battery.

Overall, I'm giving the guts of the system a 9. The non-replaceable battery and low RAM hurt the system some, but it's damn good for what it costs.

On to games, I'm happy to report that the majority of games you can buy on the PSN for PSP actually do work. You can purchase them directly for the system, but you can transfer them. There's no official list from Sony, but you can find them online at various forums. Still, there are a few choice titles that don't work for the system or can't be obtained at all. These include Crisis Core, MGS: Portable Ops, any of the Lumines games, Motorstorm, Resistance, and Twisted Metal to name a few. If any of those games are your favorites, either get a PSP or hold on to the one you have because they aren't here. PSOne support has been added for quite a few games including some of the most popular like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy 7, and Resident Evil just to name a few.

For the Vita games, we're a bit hit or miss here. Some of the games are great. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is just like the console version packed into your handheld. Lumines is great and so is Uncharted. However, there's been a lot of really weak games. There's also a lot of digital only games. Now granted, these are games like Plants vs. Zombies and Escape Plan, but for those who enjoy having physical copies beware because there are going to be a lot of these in the future.

Speaking of the future, the Vita's is a bit uncertain. On one hand, you have a new Resistance, Mortal Kombat, and Final Fantasy X HD, but on the other you have a lot of nothing. Really, right now, there isn't much to root for. I'm really hoping for some AAA titles to hit. Gravity Rush looks really cool, but outside of that, there's not much. Compound that with the fact that the Vita really needs these titles, but they are months out and it's going to hurt the system bad.

For the games, I'm saying 8. The Vita needs a lot of work here. Sony needs to get as many PSP titles working. They also need a killer game to make people want to buy the system. Uncharted is good, but a new exclusive Metal Gear or God of War or Final Fantasy could give the system the push it needs.

Everything else... well, the system already has very good accessory support. They have great cases and screen protectors out there. I bought a cradle to keep mine safe along with a nice case that allows me to put up to 16 games in it. Other elements of the OS are OK  Near helps you find other Vita owners close to you, plus welcome park has some nice mini games to help you learn how to use the system. You've also got Google Maps support as well as Netflix (though I don't recommend using it with 3G data). I'm going to give the fluff an 8. None of these things sell the system, but they can't make you think twice about it if they were wrong.

When taken together and averaged, I gave it all an 8.3 (83) or B. There's definitely a bumpy road ahead of Sony. They've really got to get their act together if they're going to sell this thing. The fact that they didn't even have a CAPS lock button before a firmware update is a bad sign. These are things not even worth mentioning during updates if they weren't such necessity. And yet, I can't help thinking Sony could have brought this system out with everything ready to right off the bat. Being hasty has only hurt them before, so why do it again?

Final Verdict: B (Worth it, but do your research first)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Some more accessories,...

My last post dealt with various accessories I use for my phone and tablet. I couldn't squeeze them all in so this post will be a continuation of the last one.

Jawbone Era - Shadowbox design

Ah my trusty Bluetooth headset. This is actually my third Aliph Jawbone headset. I had the Icon, then Era - Midnight (which was lost), and now Era - Shadowbox. The big thing I love about Aliph's headsets is the design and capabilities they give. The Era is longer than its predecessor, the Icon, and the design language is more art inspired than your traditional simple Bluetooth headset. 

The Era comes with an earhook, multiple ear gels, and a charger. Beyond that, the strength of the headset lies in what it can do. The Era is the first Bluetooth headset with an accelerometer so you can use gestures to do things such as answer or reject calls. It also adds wideband audio (or HD audio). However, the really neat thing is the ability to sync the headset with Jawbone's website. Once you do that you'll have the option to change the announcer's voice, enter caller id information, and activate specific features like NoiseAssassin (a military grade noise reduction feature). The voices demand special attention since they're not just plain voices but highly unique sounding "characters". You can choose between gravely sounding buff dudes, flirty party girls, or even a mafioso crime boss and more. The site is also where you will update your firmware as well.

The Era gets about 5 hours talk time which is less than some of its contemporaries, but I don't hold it against it too much considering Bluetooth headsets have a somewhat limited practical usage. The headset also has an app for Android that allows you to put battery information into your notification bar and alter a couple more things with the headset. The only negative to this is the program's voice overrides your "character" voice. Bit of a bummer to say the least. The headset is also expensive when compared to other ones coming in at $120. However, there are often sales where you can find the headset as low as $40. Overall, it's an amazing piece of technology for someone who wants something a little different than the regular headsets out there.

Pros: Superb design, unique features like motion controls and HD audio, programmable voices, additional auxiliary program.

Cons: Expensive, battery life could be better, Jawbone app overrides programmed voice.

Final Grade: A-

Philips Fidelio AS140

My Nexus S finally gave up (somewhat). After screwing up the radio and damaging the IMEI number, my Nexus S decided it would no longer grab a cellular signal. However, everything else still worked. So what was I to do with it? Well, as luck would have it, I found this fun speaker dock/alarm clock at Target for $33. 

Seen here, with the Nexus S coincidentally, the Fidelio dock isn't the most elegant thing I've ever seen, but it's not bad either. The dock comes with the option to connect to Bluetooth, 3.5 mm headset jack, FM radio, or just plain good old alarm clock. After turning the dock on, I quickly acclimated myself to the controls and synced my phone up with the dock. 

I tested it playing a few songs which played flawlessly. The sound was more pushed towards the mid range with some moderate bass and somewhat subdued treble. The volume gets fairly loud, but not nearly as much as one might think based on the appearance of this dock. Overall, it's decent, but nothing to write home about which is a shame because I've had really good headphones and CD players from Philips in the past. 

The big problems I have with this dock isn't the hardware itself, but the Fidelio app that you download from the Play Store. I frequently suffer issues with syncing, settings going bad, and other nonsensical things. I think a large part of this is the fact that the software hasn't been updated for Jelly Bean. This is a big problem with accessories like this. Often the companies release them and may provide a few updates before essentially dropping any support for them.

Overall, for the cost I paid, it's worth it. However, paying much more than that would not be. I chalk this up to the limited support and buggy program for it.

Pros: Many functions for the unit, decent sound.

Cons: Buggy program diminishes the usefulness of the unit.

Final Grade: B- (for the dock), D (for the program)

Seidio Charging Vault

Seidio has been a big part of my mobile life for at least three years now. I started buying them with my Nexus S, trying to find a solid, well-designed case. After several bad buys, I came across Seidio and have bought a Seidio case for every single Android phone thus far. So, naturally when I found out about this product, I was intrigued.

For a long time I carried several different portable batteries around with me in case I didn't have access to an electrical outlet. They tended to vary from 500 mAh to 4000 mAh. The reason I chose the Seidio Charging Vault was the fact that the charger functioned as an AC adapter as well as a portable battery. All of my other  portable batteries required them to be charged separately (usually through my computer ports). With this charger, I get the best of both worlds, an AC adapter when I'm at work and a portable battery if I'm stuck in a situation that requires it. The battery is only 2200 mAh but it's large enough to supply a full charge to my cell phone. It also has two USB outlets to charge two things at once. 

I'll be replacing it soon since the outlet is only 1 Amp and I need a charger with a 2 Amp output for my tablet. There's one from a company called NewTrent for $45 that's double the size of my current battery. The Seidio Charging Vault runs $50 for the version without cords. It's a little pricey, but for someone with just a cell phone, I think it's invaluable.

Pros: Functions as both an AC adapter and portable battery, compact size, two USB ports.

Cons: Lacks 2 Amp output, pretty expensive.

Final Grade: A-