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PlayStation Vita Impressions – Interface

A number of years ago, Sony introduced an at-the-time revolutionary new interface. It was the XrossMediaBar (XMB) and its stated intention was to navigate a breadth of devices cohesively while supporting a wide variety of inputs. Touch, for example, was something the XMB was supposed to do down the road. PS3s, PSPs and Bravia TVs have all come and gone with this interface and it’s come to be a sort of Sony hallmark in vastly different sectors of consumer electronics. I like it.

Fast forward to today and we have the PS Vita and it’s ‘LiveArea’. I’ll say right now that I can’t stand it. It looks too childlike, is far too clunky to use and abandons too much of what Sony’s built in the past. I’m not sure what, if any, device this interface really suits but it’s certainly not a gaming handheld aimed at the hardcore. In fact, from the pull-down-to-unlock lock screen (which is entirely unnecessary) is seems like Sony’s designers have just pulled in whatever touch-based ideas from wherever they felt like with no regard for the product as whole.

First off the icons are too luminescent, too shiny and the backgrounds too vibrant. This is not just a taste thing- they push the otherwise impressive OLED beyond what it seems to be capable of. Colours side-by-side seem to have too much contrast and the reflections and shadows on the icons show far too much aliasing. Maybe this would have looked better on a higher-definition display, but even the Vita with 4x the effective number of pixels of a PSP (which had no problem showing off a smooth XMB) makes it look amateurish and unfinished. I can’t help but get the feeling this was done on a computer monitor and never tested much on the display that would go into production units.

A lot of interaction design talk of late has gone into visual paradigms and whether it is important to mimic real world gestures and textures for touch or whether that just obscures things. LiveArea, with all it’s page switching and dog-ear pulling combined with buttons and zooms is just horrifically inconsistent. At times, with regular menus and most of the stuff you find in-game, it seems like you’re going to pull out and find a clean, funtional XMB waiting for you. In actual fact you’re just going to be dumped where you started, a bunch of icons and a swathe of screen-wasting pages for active apps that not only takes up more space than it should, but is incredibly labourious to swipe through.

The problem with this really is clutter. Want to multitask? Well you first have to hit the physical home key, then swipe across pages to find what task you wanted to open. Or just go back to the panes on the left and find the icon for what you want to do. Isn’t that one step too many? Do you really have to go all the way out to the main interface to do anything? Couldn’t some sort of overlay be superimposed on the current application instead? An overlay would also solve the problem of showing all open apps on one screen, instead of having to sweep through page after page not really knowing what’s next (they’re ordered by recent activity… most of the time) or how many pages will need to be turned before you get to what you want.

As a real kick in the face none of these pages actually close on their own, even if the task or application is no longer running. It’s on the user to manually pull down each dog-ear to close an app’s page before the sheer number of them becomes unmanageable. What makes this even more ridiculous is that every other app requires closing off of others. Want to open a web page while playing a game? Gotta close the game. Want to reply to a message from a friend while doing something else? You have to come out of that, and flick your finger across any number of dead application pages before you get to the page where you left the messaging app open. Finally, as far as I can tell, there’s no option to skip all the way to the rightmost page, to quickly get back to the starting point or to close everything that’s open with one stroke. The result is inelegant and detracts a lot from the overall impression the PS Vita might give in other areas.

Do I think a touch-enabled and -optimised XMB would have been a smarter, cleaner and more impressive UI to have installed on the Vita? Absolutely and nothing would impress me more than a 2.0 choice which gave a choice between the two. Of course that’s never going to happen – LiveArea is here to stay. But so long as it is, it undermines the Vita’s hardcore, mature market positioning and smacks of a cheap kiddie-friendly interface that abandons generations of visual heritage and sets the Vita on its own, away from the rest of Sony’s CE family. That may well be intentional but I ask this; if you’re going hardcore first and casual later, what real sense is there putting something as Play School as the LiveArea front and centre on day 1?

I call this just the latest example of Sony’s right hand not knowing what the left is doing.


PlayStation Vita Impressions – Hardware

We now stand more or less a week from the international release of the PlayStation Vita via ‘first edition’ programs in the US and other pre-order initiatives in other territories. I’ve had my unit for a few weeks now and feel a few things need to be said before the internet takes a given position on this thing. In this post I’ll be looking at the hardware specifically. For better or worse and despite doing a number of things very exceptionally, I’m disappointed with the Vita overall. As to whether I think it will fail, I’d say no. I am far more convinced though that this will be Sony’s final gaming handheld, at least in a traditional sense.

Everyone who’s been in a position to play with a Vita has been in unanimous agreement that it’s a fantastic piece of technology. A quad-core processor, double the RAM of a PS3, front and rear touch pads, and OLED screen (but not a 720p one) seemed to tick all the boxes while remaining not much larger or any heavier than an original PSP.

In spite of all that it doesn’t strike me with the level of ‘wow’ that Sony consumer products such as the PS2 or PSP did when first releasedw. Maybe the capabilities – not just graphically, mind you – of the smartphones and tablets out there have raised expectations of what can reasonably be delivered. I realise it’s not fair to compare a $250~ Vita with a $500 Galaxy SII, but the fact is the screen on that device is better to look at during any practical application, it’s worlds away smaller and thinner and has a debatable lead in battery life in defiance of it’s small size. This doesn’t take much away from the Vita – the GSII is only a phone with touch controls after all – except to say that it’s ability to impress above and beyond is markedly diminished in light of such competition.

As someone with medium sized hands, not big or small, saying that doing a QCB motion on the d-pad is actually painful is however not a complement. Sure, a lot of people will play things using touch controls or the exceptional (given their size) analogue sticks, but the fact is I bought my Vita with Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with an intent to not kill myself rocket punching and plasma storming against the left hand side of the screen. Thank goodness there are double fireball motions in the upcoming Street Fighter X Tekken because that would quite frankly be a dealbreaker at this point.

Also overly small are the buttons. They have more in common with the Nintendo DS’  face buttons than those on the PSP or Dual Shock 3. This isn’t a massive issue in most games, but if I’m using the ‘Wipout’ style controls in Wipeout 2048, where X is accelerate, square is use and circle is absorb, all with the right analogue a bit close for comfort, I’m going to have serious problems hitting those things at the right times. The PSP didn’t have these control problems and if I had to pick a major point of regression on the Vita, it’s that it has shrunk everything on the face of the unit to the point of near un-usability.

Something that the mainstream of internet opinion has taken a strong dislike to is the use of yet more proprietary media on the part of Sony. Game cards, unlike the cartridge-based titles of Nintendo’s system, can save game data and DLC onto themselves without the need for additional storage. Not all games opt for this though and many have cried foul at Sony’s refusal to mandate it. It’s all the worse since their second proprietary formal of memory cards are priced into the stratosphere and ultimately necessary to fully using the device as it’s being marketed.

My complaint isn’t so much about these devious decisions so much as their poor implementation. Neither the game nor memory cards can be read by anything but the Vita and so I can’t write anything conclusively about data read & write speeds. Nonetheless I have no problem saying that loading times are pretty garbage across the board. UMVC3 takes at least 10 times longer to load 6 characters and a stage than its Xbox 360 cousin and Wipeout 2048‘s load times are just appalling at 50-60 seconds per event. Both of these anecdotes come from experiences with the game card version, which is, if reports are to be trusted, the faster of the two formats.

It seems even more obvious when you look at the UI and other interfaces of the Vita, but the hardware seems cobbled together from technologies and interests of multiple business units operating largely in silos with little regard for the cohesiveness of the finished product. As far as hardware goes the PS Vita has some serious grunt but is nowhere near as far ahead of the field as the PSP was in its time. And whether that raw horsepower is harnessed by software or not in the long run, the machine is hamstrung by capricious design decisions that let it down at almost every turn. The same is true of the rest of the elements that make up the Vita whole, but I’ll save that for the next few posts.

As a postscript I’d like to disclose that my experience has been with the Wifi only model. For a million reasons and one I don’t consider there to be any reason to buy the 3G version and as far as I know there are no exclusive capabilities unique to that model. Ergo, I didn’t think it was worth the time to say anything at length about it.


The Garbage on T3.com

I have finally had enough of T3. I’m used to tech blogs having a playful relationship with the news they report. The difference is that T3 states everything with an absolute journalistic fervour and yet still manages to publish sensationalist garbage like their current string of articles stating ‘iPad 2 SD Slot confirmed’ – most recently in their News@8PM. The scoop is that the iPad 2 has an SD card slot, something that is not only decidedly un-Apple, but would also disrupt the careful price tiering ecosystem of iPad models. Further, this whole rumour is being built on cases at CES from 3rd parties that, by T3’s own admission, are most likely based on those vendors’ best guesses as to what the next gen tablet does or doesn’t have. I know that Apple rumours are red hot for page views and the like, but come on.

This isn’t the only instance where T3 has outrightly stated things that are controversial, speculative or just plain rumours and presented them as fact in a headline and they aren’t the only ones guilty of doing so. This instance is really just the final straw. Far be it for me to ‘un-subscribe’ to an internet source of news but the outrageous writing at a place that purports to be more authoritative than most has pissed me off one too many times. And heaven knows there a million other feeds to take its place.


The Chrome Web Store and Me

On many occasions, in the middle of various different conversations, I’ve found myself extolling the virtues of Google’s web browser and ultimately declaring ‘Chrome is the best thing ever’. Two or so years ago that meant a lightning-fast
browser to replace the clunky and resource-hogging Firefox that opened so quickly it offered an almost ‘instant on’ to the internet. App shotcuts, syncing and so many other good things also came along for the ride. Today, with its new Web Store, Chrome is revolutionising things again but in a way that isn’t immediately apparent.

A cursory glance at the storefront will say the only two things that need to be said about the Chrome App Store; more than a few pages have been taken from Apple’s book and also that most of these ‘apps’ are merely shortcut-wrapped HTML5 apps. Detractors have always called Apple on its devices needing ‘apps’ to make the web usable. You shouldn’t have to compartmentalise the web, they say. However what Chrome highlights is the fact that so many online services are so robust that they may well have been bespoke native applications at one point in the computing past. That HTML5 now essentially enables them to run without Flash or, Heaven forbid, Air, just sweetens the deal. And so to have them app-ified is still useful, even in  full desktop environment. Further it allows integration into the desktop that a website on its own might now- right-clicking contextual menus and drag-and-drop file movement on services like Box.net.

However the reason this compartmentalisation works, at least for me, is in the syncing. I have a consistent user experience – through Chrome alone – across all the computers I use. Pinning tabs for Gmail, Reader, imo.im and the marvellous Tweetdeck HTML5 app keep these basic utilities always open in the browser and makes the experience self-sufficient. I can live out of a single Chrome window at home on Windows or at work on OSX and I love it. Sure, you could do this before and in other browsers, but the experience had never been so consistent or seamless. Most importantly, it had never been so easy.

Once the implications of it sink in you start to realise how Chrome OS seals the deal on all of it and just how significant Chrome’s offerings are. Techcrunch highlights how opening up Chrome OS for the first time and watching all your apps sync over is the future of computing. And it is. Apple’s Mac App Store might offer a similar proposition to OSX in a few months but half the value of Google’s version comes from it being platform-agnostic. Living out of a browser as I said sidesteps the OS and its specificities altogether.

That Google have been the first ones to really push this in a meaningful and accessible way is surprising. For the first time since their core search product, and with the debatable exception of YouTube, they have released something that has the potential to hit the mark bigtime. And for all the talk of ‘cloud’ computing, again, outside of webmail, they are the first to make the idea resonate with the consumer. That probably does come down to their vested interest being on the net while Microsoft and Apple have their OS product families to think about, but is an interesting point nonetheless. It will be exciting to see how this space pans out in the post-Web Store internet.


Experiments With A Dog’s Severed Head

 

This video has been around for ages. Since 1940, actually. Seems I’m late to the party. Apparently real, this clip is taken from a Russian film – possibly pure propaganda – showing various medical experiments, the highlight of which is the post-separation animation of a dog’s head.

If the film is to be believed, the poor canine’s head survived 15 minutes after its natural heart stopped supplying bloodflow and the artificial ‘autojecter’ was attached. The question here is, is it real? It’s easy to call ‘fake’ on something like this but you have to wonder…

Thanks to Gizmodo for bringing this well known internet meme to my attention.


Google, Facebook & Apple; Tech Giant News Roundup

Good news, everyone.

The last 48 or so hours in the tech world have been pretty interesting- 3 of the biggest companies have had pretty significant public showings of new products and services. While I pre-emptively wrote about Facebook’s mail announcements yesterday, here’s what Google and Apple had to reveal as well;

 

Facebook – A Modern Mail Service

Zuckerberg talking about Facebook, little else.

So Facebook didn’t quite announce a rival to Gmail and Hotmail as everyone predicted… or did they? You can now still register for a ‘@facebook.com’ address once your account receives an opt-in invitation, but this new service will focus on convergence of SMS, Email, IM and other current messaging platforms rather than going head to head with existing providers. The existing concerns remain about Facebook, privacy and email, but guess we know what FB poached that Google Wave dev for now, huh?

 

Google – The Nexus S, Gingerbread, NFC and Chrome OS

The Nexus S?

Although Facebook’s revelations largely overshadowed what was going on at the Web 2.0 summit, Google’s CEO had a few almost-groundbreaking things to share with the community. Firstly, he demonstrated Android 2.3 AKA Gingerbread on an unannounced phone many summise to be the elusive ‘Nexus S’ from Samsung. We can’t confirm either way since branding was concealed although a special hardware component was explicitly mentioned – a Near Field Communication (NFC) chip. This lead in to what will no doubt be a key feature of the new OS, set to release in the next few weeks, as it enables ‘bump-to-pay’ transactions. Seems like this will be another area where Google and Apple are racing to get a cutting edge technology into consumers’ hands first.

Chrome OS, that bastard topic largely relegated to the background by Google’s more prominent Android, was also given a clear purpose by an offhand comment by Eric Schmidt- it is for low cost keyboard devices. Which rules phones and tablets out.

 

Apple – iTunes News…?

Trendy old shit that no one cares about anymore... just what iTunes needs more of.

Apple threw its hat in the ring this week as well teasing an unforgettable iTunes-related reveal on Tuesday. However this hype sizzled out as soon as it was revealed that the Beatles catalogue would be coming to the popular e-store. The Beatles? Who cares. Everyone who gives a damn will have ripped their CDs, bought their audacious USB collection or pirated the stuff by now.

Luckily this was dispelled with the also predicted and highly anticipated iTunes Cloud, Streaming, iTunes Pass, 90sec previews and a redesigned client.

 

The war for the internet, ad revenue, market share, hearts and minds is very much underway and at this very exciting time in history I dare not call a winner. Especially since likelihood suggests that even if there is one, there won’t be for long. Microsoft is notably absent from this week’s festivities- no doubt working on getting all those missing features into Windows Phone 7.


Games for Windows Marketplace & More Digital Delivery Foolishness

What's wrong with this picture?

Whether it boils down to appeasing retailers or just criminal half-arsedness, a lot of digital storefronts are content to let themselves look stupid. I recently wrote about Steam’s Australia tax and generally clueless pricing. Today, I look at Microsoft’s offering; the newly revamped ‘Games for Windows Marketplace’ and it is no less silly.

Take a look at the above screenshot. That’s right. You can get Batman: Arkham Asylum for $49.99USD, or the Game of the Year Edition, which comes with more stuff, for $39.99. This tells me two things, first of which is that Microsoft doesn’t give enough of a shit to curate what’s chucked onto the store and check for obvious pricing curiosities like this.\

Secondly, it seems Microsoft has no interest in pricing competitively. The GOTY version of Arkham goes for $29 on Steam, arguably this service’s chief competition. It also goes for $29 on retailers like Play-Asia and considering those boxed versions come with 3D specs to boot, it’s not half bad a deal. Other titles like Age of Empires III for $39 and Fallout 3 (without any DLC- they come at the original $9.99 a piece) for $49 are terribly overpriced and handly beaten at retail and most other digital storefronts that sell them.

Speaking of Fallout, Fallout: New Vegas is nowhere to be seen. Nor are last year’s bestseller Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or current record-breaker Black Ops. That’s because these games are tied up with Steam via Steamworks. However Microsoft is cutting off its nose to spite its face here if they exclude games using Steam’s overlay and DRM- Direct2Drive learned this lesson last year and quickly added Modern Warfare 2 to its library after initially refusing to on these same grounds. What makes these notable omissions from the GFW Marketplace even more apparent though is that older instalments in each franchise are not only available, but are present on the store’s ‘Featured’ tab. Oh dear…

So what draws does Marketplace have? Daily deals for a start, but then the prices aren’t that great. Exclusive titles like Gears of War but little else- Halo and Halo 2 are inexplicably absent. Steam has auto-updates, Steamcloud and a vast library, GoG.com has its app compatibility patches and ‘no DRM’ policy and D2D has its no-nonsense approach. What does GFW Marketplace have to set it apart from the crowd? Nothing that I can think of.

I like the layout of the Games for Windows Marketplace, but entering the market now, it is essentially asking me to convert over from Steam and I think that’s how most people in a position to buy and download games online will see it too. That said, it doesn’t seem very interested in competing on price, on the strength of its library or bringing anything else to the table. I see little reason to buy into this store and Microsoft needs to step things up right quick if it doesn’t want to see this venture dift into obscurity.

 

Visit the [Games for Windows Marketplace] if you dare…


Facebook Mail: Get Your Social Out of My Inbox

Facebook Mail

Internet giant Facebook seems set to unveil it’s own email service to essentially compete with Google’s Gmail and Microsoft’s Hotmail in the next 24 hours. However, given the ubiquity of those established services, and Facebook’s poor track record with privacy, would you sign up for a @facebook.com?

This discussion reminds me of my switch to Gmail from Hotmail a few years ago. Gmail at that time fofered a better service- more storage space, a better web client, free POP access – and the fact that it never deaciivated your account, deleting your mail in the process, as Hotmail was known to do. Service-wise, Google’s offering was compelling enough for me to up and transfer over, migrate what mail I could and tell everyone my new address.

I faced a similar conundrum at that time- do I trust Google with my mail? Their privacy policy was notoriously sketchy but eventually I caved with the mentality of ‘what’s the worst they can do’ with all my private data. That said, I shouldn’t be criticising Facebook’s potential mail service on the grounds of privacy, should I? Both Google and FB have a vested interest in personal data that drives their respective targeted advertising businesses. Neither in that way is more ‘evil’ that the other.

However as Google learned earlier this year with the failed ‘Buzz’ experiment, people don’t want social in their inbox, especially if they have little control over it. And what is Facebook all about if not the removal of individuals’ control over their information? The only obvious trump card FB has over other webmail services is potentially tight integration with it’s main social network; one that 500 million people are already tied up in. As to whether that’s something people actually want, I’m not so sure.

Given its massive user base, any Facebook Mail project has its foot in peoples’ doors already. If it wants a whole bunch of people to switch from their existing mail providers, it will have to offer something those competitors do not while also dodging the backlash that’s sure to arise from any privacy-related missteps. Whatever Mark Z and friends reveal today, it looks set to upset the existing webmail equilibrium but to what extent remains to be seen.


Samsung Galaxy Tab Impressions

Samsung's Galaxy Tab.

I had a chance to play with Samsung’s flagship tablet, the Galaxy Tab, today. These are my preliminary impressions, but on the whole was not impressed. Although I’m generally a fan of Samsung I don’t like their Galaxy line a whole lot and this device didn’t do much to change that.

First off it runs Android 2.2, stretched to the machine’s 1000×600 resolution. You can see the result above. While not awful, it’s obvious why Android phones are capped at WVGA. Things look off center and although the display is very impressive, the OS never seems a good fit for it.

Performance, however, is what really lets down the Galaxy Tabr. As the above video shows, the browser is not that responsive and locked up in my few minutes of testing. Things are generally sluggish and, combined with the OS design issues regarding tablets, doesn’t offer as polished an experience as the iPad does.

 

 

If I were to praise the Galaxy Tab for something it would be the build quality. The thing feels solid and while the display doesn’t pack as many pixels as its Apple cousin, it does cram them into a smaller display. Pixel density is tight and makes the device look gorgeous. However it feels too heavy. The actual weight is less than the iPad’s, but for the size, feels a tad excessive.

My brief toying with the device also raises an interesting question- when would someone use a Galaxy Tab? It’s smaller and more easily portable than an iPad but still doesn’t fit in a pocket. On the other hand though it packs the same Android build as you’d find on a phone. If you’re thinking of buying this trinket you probably already have a phone and so why you’d double up I don’t know.

The tablet.            The box.

I’d welcome a chance to further probe this device but as it stands the Galaxy Tab doesn’t impress. Its Android OS seems tacked on and the performance felt far from polished – perhaps as a result. Also while it’s still hard to define what the iPad is actually for, that is a more difficult question for Samsung to answer as the overlap between tablet and phone is even greater here. Ultimately you get a smaller, more buggy device than Apple’s offering, and, for $999AUD outright, it just doesn’t compare favourably to its only other real competition in the market (iPads start at $649AUD). My argument for a full OS on tablets still stands, by the way.

Based on today’s experience alone, I’d recommend passing on this one. When the kinks are ironed out and a more suitable version of Android is available this could be an exciting proposition but sadly that’s not what’s currently on offer with the Galaxy Tab.


A Full OS for Tablets, Please

Windows 7 on Tablets.

The guys over at PC World published an article a few months ago outlining why Windows 7 shouldn’t go on tablets. I paid little mind to that, considering Steve Ballmer confirmed tablets with Microsoft’s desktop OS would be releasing before Christmas. However it seems like the software giant has since decided to cede to this curious contingent of the tech-o-sphere and release Windows Embedded 7 Compact as MS’s de facto tablet OS. Umm… can I say no thanks?

What’s really wrong with the iPad and the Android based tablets coming out now is that they aren’t fully fledged OS’s. iOS’ hidden filesystem takes the cake but there are a million more little things that hamper productivity and make basic tasks beyond looking at web pages more of a pain than they should be. Grabbing an image, cropping it, throwing it in a blog post like this and then publishing the thing is a trial. Then there’s the issue of file type compatibility, needing separate native apps to make the web usable.. etc etc.

Then there’s actual application compatibility. Think of the suites of programs; full versions of CS5 and Office, libraries of games and so forth that can run on Windows. They could all run on a tablet with Windows 7. They currently cannot on iOS or Android, and, from the sounds of things, won’t on WE7C either. A cut down OS is even more limiting when you start to think of the situation in these terms.


No Android Retina Display? Blame Google.

Android Phones- nothing over WVGA.

Android-equipped phones are trickling out all the time. I’ve had my eye on the Droid X and the Desire HD for some time too, desperately wanting to jump from the iOS camp as I am. One thing that I’ve noticed and is constantly disappointing is the resolution. Why does the Desire HD, with its glorious 4.3″ screen still only have a 800×480 res? Turns out that’s Google’s fault.

Only in reading the hype surrounding the pending release of Gingerbread / 2.3 did I notice that Android caps its resolution at WVGA (800×480). Wtf Google? Why in the world would anyone want to impose a software resolution cap on an ‘open source’ OS? I’m taking a purely topline, superficial look at this. It must make technical or business sense to someone but as I see it this bizarre, deliberate choice is having two important consequences;

1) There is nothing with Android to answer iPhone 4’s ‘Retina Display’. The Desire HD is a good phone but there’s nothing HD about it. In fact, it has the exact same number of pixels as the original Desire, the Droid X and just about any other semi-recent Android phone. That this was mandated by software available is sad enough. However the greater tragedy, I think, is that the cocky PR bastards at Apple get to keep parading around their incremental screen improvement, beauiful as it may be, as the best thing since 256 colours.

2) Android needs a new version for tablets. 3.0, whatever it’s called, is billed as the ‘tablet version’. Why is this necessary? Vendors are steering clear of Google’s OS for their tablet offerings in the short term since it’s just not up to snuff. Of course this is in part due to the less-than-great multitouch implementation currently built in, but it also has to do with the res. WVGA tablets just don’t work- Telstra T-Tab or Optus My Tab anyone? I laugh knowing that in those cases resolution is the least of the abismal devices’ problems but they still serve to illustrate the point.

All I can say is I hope Gingerbread comes out this week and I hope it removes this cap. It’s an inexcusable oversight – Google, get it fixed. It’s still a shame that even if we get so lucky we will have to wait for the next generation of ‘droids before we get something rivalling Apple’s overhyped, pretentiously named but ultimately breathtaking iPhone 4 screen. A tremendous shame, actually.


The Strange & Depressing Social Network

Social Networking at work.

What an absurd concept: a big budget film chronicling the inception and creation of a website. Facebook is an empire built on arrogance and blind luck. To make it’s transition to film, claiming to be the social network is fittingly arrogant and a filmic retelling of its creation is unwarranted. Fairly, the writer knows this and points out the folly of this supposed social marvel at every turn. They also fearlessly goes on to overturn ever stone and dredge up every detail that could potentially cast Facebook.com in a poor light. Bravo for that.

There is a good reason why posters for The Social Network credit both director and screenwriter, and also why other do not. The tight writing is really what carried the film. The tight editing and tight scoring both come in secondary, and it shows. That is what people will recall after a first watching- witty dialogue and a bloated, unweildly narrative cut down its palatable essentials. If I wanted to be uncharitable, though, I could describe this as wrapping dogshit in tinfoil and selling them as earrings.

Ultimately this story could have been The Operating System and dealt with the founding of Microsoft or, just as easily, The Personal Computer and been about Apple. See what I did there? The actual events at the heart of the Social Network form a typical and thoroughly predictable tale that I’d go so far as to say could describe most businesses, let alone every dotcom startup dreamed up by drunken college freshmen in some preppy fraternity dormroom. Betrayal, good timing and a little intuition, it seems, is enough to make America’s youngest billionaire. And that is sad. Yet I still have pity for the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the world who had all those things, but still had to work a hell of a lot harder than that cockly little asshole Mark Z for their fortunes. And as much as I hate Steve Jobs, after watching this, he seems like tech’s greatest saint by comparison.

In all, given its rewards showered on such disreputable behaviour, this is one mighty troubling film. Doubly so since it’s all true. But you won’t notice. Or care. You’ll walk out of The Social Network remembering how swish a retelling it was, even if the story told was a tremendously depressing one. So who’s going to go delete their Facebook account after seeing this? No? I didn’t think so.


Oddsfish: Blowing Android

I can’t think of a better caption for this, so there you have it..


Steam’s Customer Service Crisis

Steam.

I’m a big fan of Steam, Valve’s digital delivery platform. For a whole bunch of reasons, it’s probably the best thing to come to PC gaming, well, ever. However there are a lot of things it does terribly poorly for a vendor of its size – things that are easier to construe as an underlying malice toward its customers. Steam pioneered digital delivery of games in a meaningful way and had to find its way as it went along. Now, however, it is the market leader with competitors like D2D and Impulse looking to it for direction. It is utterly unacceptable at this point to be clumsy, rigid or have anything but the best customer service but, I think, Steam fails shockingly on all these counts.

It starts and ends with customer service. For many people Steam Support is not something they have to often if ever deal with. And lucky them. Consensus is that Steam Support sucks. Minimum wait time for a response to a query of any kind is 24 hours. Often this response will not be helpful in the slightest, instead asking for more details or requesting you take diagnostic measures that if you wouldn’t have resorted to support if you hadn’t tried. The wait for the next reply is another day or so. Apparently this is prioritised by the nature of the query but I’ve found these timings pretty standard. However if a game isn’t allowing you to play because ‘The Steam server is not available’ or if Steam Cloud cannot sync and you’ve lost access to your game saves, this is really too long to wait.

Registration of retail CD keys is also a surprisingly flawed process. In my 3 or so years of experience with the service, I’ve had to register retail purchases with Steam because the games themselves are integrated with the service. FEAR 2, Dawn of War 2 and Aliens vs. Predator come to mind. The first two of those randomly disappeared from my account one day. On contacting support I was first told that my account had been hacked and that my password was being reset. However the login details given to me by support were for the wrong account! After I sorted that out with them (another 2 days of back and forth) I was asked to verify I owned the games by writing my name and ticket number on the actual game manual next to the CD key, photographing it and sending it through. I did that. After that though I needed retail receipts showing a purchase in the last 90 days to be scanned and sent over. I didn’t have these, and FEAR was bought a lot longer than 3 months prior. Since I couldn’t supply this, they couldn’t restore my games and I was left with the uncertain prospect of re-buying things I already owned only to wonder if this would happen again. I ended up repurchasing the titles later during a sale but the ordeal has left a sour taste in my mouth and an uncertainly in my mind about the reliability of the service.

Reliability is also called into question by regional pricing and release dates. These change almost whimsically- prices can double for a given game overnight and releases can be pushed back days even up to the point where the unlock timer reads ‘1 hour left’. Fallout: New Vegas is a current example; until last week Australians were asked to pay $49USD for the game at which point the price jumped to $89USD. US residents still get the lower price. Apart from pacifying retailers, is there any incentive for publishers to do this? Price discrepancies across regions is as common as it is baffling. For the same product with virtually no manufacturing or packaging overhead, there is no fair reason why one person in one place should pay more than any other. Although this discrimination can be blamed on the publisher, Valve is responsible for what is represented in their storefront. Surely a little consistency is in order; who wants to buy the game for almost double what it was a few days ago? Who will think that’s fair? In recent memory, as an Australian, I’ve seen this happen to Borderlands, Alien vs. Predator, Bioshock 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Darksiders, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and more- it’s not cool.

Release dates are just as finicky. I cite Fallout: New Vegas again but that game was really the last straw for this long overdue tirade. It was meant to come out last weekend. Instead, even though the pre-load is finished, it will only unlock this coming Friday. Almost a week after the same game files have unlocked for playing for Americans and a whole week after it was meant to unlock. You can always look to the publisher but couldn’t Steam admins have got the date right from the beginning? Or at least couldn’t they have noticed and made that change more than an hour before the due date? Borderlands gave me the same trouble. People are always talking about VPNs to unlock early but given Steam accounts are bannable – and with them all your games – over things like that it’s hardly worth the risk. Either way, another area in which Steam fails.

The topic of refunds and resale of your Steam property made the news this week and, although a more fundamental complaint of the service, is also a genuine problem for the prospect of Steam moving forward. Amassing a bunch of ‘licenses’ for games is great and all, but after a while the question seemingly raises itself; ‘what do I actually own’? Very little tangible, unfortunately, and that is a major turnoff about the system as it grows. A brilliant idea to immediately attach worth to that collection is the opportunity to sell it. Or at least trade it in for credit as Michael Pachter suggested with Steam taking a cut each time. Valve quickly put down these rumours but come on. How much would it have really cost them for the amount of value it’d add to customers?

These concerns niggle at all of Steam’s users and the more they use the service the more these apparently minor issues begin to matter. I haven’t extolled the reasons why Steam is a great service, and there are many. Its user base is now mostly comprised techy, savvy enthusiasts who are willing to negotiate their way around Steam’s quirks for the sake of the its strengths,  but that won’t always be the case. Digital delivery will become commonplace and newcomers expecting the level of service offered elsewhere will be sorely disappointed with rust around Steam’s edges. Valve is on to a good thing, but they really need to lift their game lest these dismissible yet all-too-common grievances eventually escalate into real deal-breakers.


1080P, The Magic Number

1080P

Call me slow on the uptake, especially for someone blogging about technology, but I have only recently begun to appreciate the marvel that is 1080P ‘Full-HD’ TV. The term and the tech have been bandied around for ages now, even to the point where we have a new preoccupation in the form of ‘3DTV’. So why has it taken me so long? It’s because, despite the format’s prevalence, it’s just not that easy to get good 1080P content. And this upsets me.

Blu-ray discs have been the champion of HDTV and 1080P since they toppled HD-DVD some years back. Now I haven’t been the biggest disc advocate – I can count the number of DVDs I own on maybe 2 hands – by BD-ROM just fails. The tech is expensive and yet even more fragile and less reliable than DVDs. Capacities increase on an almost yearly basis, and with them comes generational obsolescence of all non-networked and non-upgradable players out there. The real problem with Blu-ray however is that the experience is not good. Systems like BD Live are not consistent and confusing, special features are often not on par with DVD releases and, wait for it, picture quality is usually trash. Avatar is a spectacle to behold, but what of epic movies pre-dating the format? Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings are the types of films you’d expect to get the most out of high definition, yet these releases have been marred by poor transfers and a general inability to show off significantly better picture quality. The only Blu-ray equipped piece of hardware in the house is my Japanese PS3 and although I’d been lead to believe a lot of discs would be region-free, more than a few aren’t. Let’s just say this has left me to passover Blu-rays altogether.

DVB or HDTV broadcasts are similarly a joke. I can’t speak for anywhere else in the world but TV in Australia is a joke at the moment with all of its inconsistently-named ‘multichannels’ and what have you. The real problem though is that hardly any of the major broadcasters put out a decent HDTV signal. The majority use digital SD 576i signals and you’d be hard pressed to find where each one’s HD channel is located. Network Ten doesn’t even have one, and the Nine Network’s previous Nine HD seems to have been recently cannibalised by ‘Gem’ which again spits out 576i. Not impressed here either.

I’m a gamer, and my PC is HDMI’d to my beautiful Samsung HDTV. I get a good 1080P signal here. The only problem is that my taste in games leans toward ones requiring a keyboard, a mouse and a hunched posture over a monitor. Games like StarCraft II or Torchlight hardly lend themselves to a controller-mapped couch experience, which is fine and that’s purely a gameplay thing. If we were to talk PlayStations and Xboxes, which are generally to be enjoyed on the big screen, how many of those games output in 1080P? Hardly any. Even big budget titles like Halo 3 or Grand Theft Auto IV look appalling. These examples don’t even run in 720P- they draw to some substandard, sub-HD resolution and I think it’s unacceptable. Yet another reason I rue the suggestion that there won’t be a PC version of Super Street Fighter IV. Don’t even get me started on the Wii – the recent Metroid: Other M looks so bad upscaled that I didn’t even care to suffer its torturous failtrain of a plot.

This trend of content providers talking up and then ignoring this discernable increase in picture quality extends well into the current ‘3D’ era where ‘autostereoscopy’ essentially cuts down the number of image lines delivered to each eye, halving resolution in order to show two picture streams at once. I’m of the once-bitten mindset here; after witnessing the astonishing content drought for 1080P I have no doubt the same will be true for 3D. So I’m not upgrading. And why should I? I’ve only just come to enjoy the pleasures of full HD video. What form that’s in deserves its own post.

UPDATE: People have pointed out that Gem’s broadcast is actually HD. Nine’s promo material says the same thing but my TV still disagrees.


Broadband Policies Compared

 
Broadband Policies Compared
 
Following on from my last rant about the NBN, our friends at SMH have summarised the policy differences quite nicely. This might help people at the polls tomorrow but since I’ve already voted I couldn’t care less at this point.


The NBN and Why Democracy Fails

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy
 
As a rule, I don’t care for politics and piss away civic rights like voting. My rationale is both that issues on debate don’t directly affect me and my say also isn’t worth much when weighed against those of the 22 or so million ignorant voters out there. The whole National Broadband Network issue is both the exception and proof for me.
To summarise, the incumbent government promises if reelected to line fibre-optic cabling (not the garbage Hybrid-Fibre Coaxial a certain telco is flaunting as ‘superfast’ at the moment *cough*) underground not only to nodes but to individual premises. This is significant because a lot of the speed, latency and general signal quality of internet comms is lost in the ‘last mile’ to houses due to old tech. In Australia some 80% of households connect to the internet via copper phone lines and technologies like DSL essentially place more of a signal burden on them than they were ever designed to carry. Fibre will connect these homes to the internet at a much faster speed than currently available. However it comes at enormous taxpayer expense. At $43 billion or more, this is one of the largest infrastructure rollouts Australia has ever seen. The boasted 100Mbps isn’t much compared to Verizon’s FiOS or the fibre networks in South Korea or Japan, but if it is really 1Gbps-capable cabling going into Telstra’s ducts then it will at least help keep the country in step with those others.
Whether or not this rollout goes ahead will depend on who is voted into office this coming weekend. The problem? This election isn’t being fought on this issue. Our PM was just ousted, just weeks before the government’s end of term. This has already polarised voters and will absolutely determine the outcome of this election. Nevertheless, this outcome will dictate whether we enjoy ultra-fast broadband in 8 years or a mishmash of market-driven, slowly-evolving technologies.
So, I take issue with the following;
- Voters don’t know, or care about the right things. This election will decided based on which of the candidates are more popular. Yet voting is mandatory here and all the poor saps, who likely wouldn’t give a damn either way otherwise, are forced by law to go out and ‘cast’ a vote.
- Politicians desperately scramble for policy differentiators with little regard for merit or even feasibility. Despite its strengths the NBN is splash-spending (hallmark of the Australian Labor Party) at its most reckless. The alternative is an ill-conceived and confusing opposing solution that raises more questions than it answers.
- Neither our infamous communications minsters (pictured above) nor the opposition leader have a sound technical understanding of what either scheme actually entails. Quotes referencing scams through the portal and high fiber come to mind.
As it happens, this is an issue that interests me for a change. Too bad then that it’s being trivialised by squabbling and factional nonsense like everything else in parliament. If anything this all just drives home the fact that democracy doesn’t work, voting isn’t a liberty that should be forced on an apathatic and tech-illiterate public, and that any faith in these processes, people – nay – politics in general is misplaced.
Too dramatic?


I want a Droid X

Motorola's New Droids
 
I’m one of those people who feel dirty using an iPhone. Contract terms being what they are, I’ve found myself attached to that device across its transition from a one-off and amazing device to the reviled pillar of conformity that the annoying locked-down plastic iTunes-tethered PoS is now. All this in 24 months or less. Needless to say I’ve been looking for an excuse to switch to Android and the Droid X is that excuse.
Why the Droid X? The looks. It’s big with a hi-res screen. I also think ‘retina’ is all marketing garble. The DX also has some pretty impressive specs although reports vary as to whether these are murdered by the stock Motoblur layer.
Several questions are raised; will I live without iTunes? Hell yes. But can I bear to part with the likes of SF4, DoDonPachi and Rage on the iOS platform? Hmm.
Maybe it’s time to carry around one of those new 4th gen iPod Touches. Actually I never really play these games anyway so who cares…


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