Category Archives: unpaid advertising

The Tortured Decision To Buy A Game Console

Like a game of risk, the console wars have exploded into a conflagration amongst all the major and minor power in computers, electronics, gaming, and on-line shopping. Then Microsoft announced it was dropping Kinect from the Xbox One and the war went nuclear!

Of all the glitziest new consoles, Sony’s PS4 is the clear winner with 7 million sold to consumers as of April and undisputed proof that games run better on the PS4 than the Xbox One. Then Microsoft surprised everyone by announcing that they were going to make the Xbox One just like the PS4, with no Kinect, a $400 price, no online subscription required for Netflix, and 2 free games per month if you pay for an online subscription. The only difference between the machines are now the controllers, the Xbox One’s HDMI input, and the PS4’s superior performance. If I were Sony, I would offer some sweet incentives to buy a PS4 before the PS4 can get back on its feet. 

On the PC front, Valve is playing early 1980s Microsoft and licensing its Steam OS to any hardware manufacture willing to build a Steam Machine. 13 planned Steam Machines were announced a few months ago and they were estimated to cost anywhere between $500 to $6000

On the one hand, new PC game releases have always run terribly on anything but the newest and most expensive hardware. On the other hand, PC games are generally cheaper than console games. This point is veritably moot, as the only Steam Machines worth buying cost more than twice as much as an Xbox One or Playstation 4.

On the mobile front, iOS and Android games are cheap and plentiful. However, I own lots of iPad games I never play because they do not work with virtual controls. SteelSeries released a bluetooth game controller for the iOS that uses Apple’s own game controller API. Unlike other bluetooth iOS game controllers, this one will actually work. The controller looks like the child of a Playstation and Xbox controller, which is to say, it looks pretty good.  Too bad it only works with the newer iPads, because this would be great for my iPad 2. There are plenty of controllers for Android too.

The last consideration for me is whether to keep playing my old Xbox 360. There are plenty new games available for both the Xbox 360 and PS3 and they play great. In fact, most of the games on the newest consoles are also available on the old consoles and some games of the old consoles are not available and the newest consoles. Both Microsoft and Sony made a big mistake buy not including backwards compatibility. If the Xbox One had backwards compatibility, I would bought an Xbox One at launch and this article would be about how much I still hate Kinect.

Let’s put all of this information in a chart:

Game Console Price Multi-Player Fee Other Considerations

Xbox One (no Kinect)

$400

$60/year

Halo 5 coming eventually

Playstation 4

$400

$50/year

better graphics than Xbox One

Steam Machine

$500-$6000

$0

it’s just a PC without Windows
iPad Air + Controller $560

$0

iPads are great, cheap games.
Xbox 360 that I own

$0

$60/year

Cheap games, I already own it.

Looking at the chart, keeping the Xbox 360 is a no-brainer. The same goes for anyone who owns a Playstation 3. This is a great time to own an old console. Microsoft has been giving away two free Xbox 360 games per month for Xbox Live Gold subscribers and has been selling most other old games for $5. Sony has been similarly dumping games on PS3 owners. For the first time ever, I have more games than I have time to play. (Of course, I hardly have any time to play games unless I give up copious amounts of sleep, so maybe that’s not a good metric of a console’s value).  Moreover, the new consoles cannot yet play Minecraft, and there is no way my kids are going to give up Minecraft.

Between the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One, the Playstation 4 is the obvious winner. The whole point of buying a new console is to play better looking games, and I want the console with the best looking games. The Xbox One has some TV stuff and picture-in-picture features. I shrug my shoulders because I do not subscribe to cable or satellite and I already use my iPad as a second screen for things like watching video while playing games (multitasking!). None of these features balance the Xbox One’s poorer performance playing games.

Having chosen the Playstation 4 as the next console in my household, I have to decide when to buy it. Now that Microsoft is offering a $400 Xbox One, I expect Sony will offer some free games with the purchase of Playstation 4. Why buy now when you know a deal is forthcoming. The Xbox 360 also has quite a bit of life left, so I can wait.

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What Computer Should My Dad Buy?

My parents want to buy a new laptop. They quickly learned that buying a new laptop is a befuddling conundrum of too many choices, low price points, and poor quality hardware. And they don’t even know about the frustrations of Windows 8. So, they frankly told me that they would rather give me the money they want to spend and I have me buy a laptop for them. Challenge accepted!

The only local store that sells all kinds of laptops is Best Buy, a.k.a. the worst store in America. I went to Best Buy over lunch  one day and looked over rows upon rows of laptops, tablets, and transforming laptop-tablet hybrid. The first thing I noticed was how darn bright the screens were. My first task was to figure how to lower the brightness from maximum to a readable levels. The second thing I noticed was the lack of Windows 7. If you want to buy a Windows laptop at Best Buy, you have to accept Windows 8. This was going to be a long lunch hour.

The problem with Windows 8 is that it does not work for Tablets or Laptops. The giant icon interface is great for tablets but very difficult for desktops. Finding anything in the giant icon interface is more difficult than it should be. Windows 8 would actually be great for tablets except the giant icon interface is replaced with a traditional desktop interface every time you open a desktop style app. On a tablet, the easy to read interface is replaced with a micronized Windows 95 interface; everything becomes too difficult to see and touch. On the laptops, the giant icon interface should never exist, yet some of the functional elements of Windows 8 can only be accessed through the cumbersome interface that is very much antagonistic toward mice and trackpads. For the past year, I have heard the debate regarding Windows 8, but I had no idea how bad the OS really is. 

Let us forget about the OS and focus on the hardware. The laptop-tablet hybrids could be awesome. At home and while traveling, I use an iPad 2 and a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard cover. The tablet-keyboard combination is fantastic. Best buy had laptop-tablet hybrids from Sony, HP, and Acer or Asus. They Sony hybrid that looked solid but I couldn’t figure out how to attach the tablet to the keyboard. HP’s hybrid was so flimsy I was worried I would accidentally crack the screen while holding it in the store. Acer or Asus’s hybrid (I often confuse the two as they both mean “cheap Asian computer” in my mind) had a tablet hybrid with even less build quality than HP. Microsoft had its own tablets with “type covers” that effectively make them hybrid computers, except the “type covers” work on desks and not on laps. The PC industry has effectively taken the solid idea of laptop-tablet hybrids and thrown it into a dumpster full of shoddy products. 

Kindle Fire HDXThe tablets by themselves come in three varieties: cheap Android tablets; and overpriced Windows tablets, and iPads. The best of the cheap Android tablets is the diminutive Amazon Kindle Fire. The price is great and the tablet seems to run well in the store. The brightness controls were also easy to find. The tablet is too tiny to use for serious computer use. Samsung’s 10″ Galaxy Tab is a bigger, more expensive, and slower Android tablet. Android has its fans but in my opinion, kinda’ sucks. The Windows tablets come in two varieties, the cheap and useless Windows RT tablets and the expensive windows Tablets including the aforementioned Microsoft tablets. The problem with all of the Windows tablets is WIndows 8. I think of my parents with their bifocals and how difficult it would be for them to see anything in Desktop mode. All Microsoft had to do was make everything in Windows bigger. They are a multi-billion dollar company; how can they get this so wrong! Compared to the cheap Android tablets and the fumble of Windows tablets, Apple’s iPad Air and iPad mini are without peer. Both tablets look and feel like something out of Star Trek. The screen sizes are also the largest in their class. The only area where the iPad suffers, in my opinion, is backing up files locally. The iPad requires a traditional computer running iTunes for bulk backups.  

The laptops at Best Buy are too divergent to group. Best buy keep keeps one Chromebook laptop next to the iPads. For those not in the know, the Chromebook is an incredibly cheap laptop that runs Google Chrome OS, an operating system whose entire interface is Google’s Chrome web browser and consequently requires an always-on internet connection. On the Windows side, the text on all of the Windows laptops was painfully small. High resolution displays are great, but in Windows, the higher the resolution, the smaller the text. The quality of the Windows laptops is a secondary issue. The least expensive laptops have terrible trackpads and keyboards and looked like they would break on the first day of use. One of the Toshiba’s on display had a few missing key. The more expensive laptops were svelte and well built and correspondingly more expensive. The laptop that most surprised me was the MacBook Air. Not only is it the sveltest laptop at BestBuy, it also has the easiest to read display. (Unlike Windows, Mac OS scales the size of text and icons so higher resolution does not miniaturize the interface.) Pricewise, the MacBook Air costs about as much as the thinner high end Windows laptops. 

For the sake of parity, I also perused the laptop selection at Costco. If you want a bulky, 15″ laptop, Costco is a great store to visit. The stand-out laptop at Costco is HP’s Chromebook. The design of the HP Chromebook is an obvious rip-off of the MacBook Air, except in cheap white plastic. (Most of the good looking PC designs copy the look of the MacBook). As noted, the Chromebook is not a real stand-alone computer, and I would never recommend it for someone like my Dad. 

My thoughts on Windows 8 are apparently shared by the masses, because just yesterday I saw a new story about the return of Windows 7 at HP. The HP Envy in particular looks like an aluminum version of the HP Chromebook and thus a higher quality MacBook Air rip-off. While it is no MacBook Air, it looks sturdier than all of the Windows laptops I saw at BestBuy and it runs Windows 7. Bestbuy should carry these.  

My recommendation to my parents is to buy the MacBook Air. The combination of size, weight, power, and battery life are easily the best I have seen of any laptop. If my parents want to stick with Windows, I then recommended the HP Envy running Windows 7. Knowing my Dad, he’ll probably choose to keep his 5 year old Dell Studio running Windows Vista. (I just shuddered.)

Downhill Supreme

True story: I had a mountain bike once. In addition to practical purposes, I used it to careen down muddy hills and through phalanxes of trees. I was always on the cusp of serious injury. The adrenaline rush was terrific. Then one day, my front tire slipped on a sandy trail and I fell chest first onto the end of the handle bars. The pain was terrific. By the next morning, my entire upper torso was a dark purple bruise. Lifting my arms above my head was impossible for the next month. Putting on a T-shirt was excruciating. Riding was of course impracticable. A couple of months after I healed, some jerk stole my bike. That was 10 years ago. I have not owned a bike since. But I have played Downhill Supreme.

Downhill Supreme is a fun 2-D mountain bike simulator. The tilt controls are great and the game play is refreshingly simple and free. There are no puzzles to suffer through here. The courses are thankfully short, as some of the later levels become repetitive as you have to re-do them until you exceed an arbitrarily set run time. The ubiquitous 3 star achievement system belies the polish of the graphics and physics. The game is also rather short. There is a promise of later levels, but then you cannot play promises. 

Next Gen Consoles Revisted

Way back in May, I pondered the next generation of consoles and concluded the Playstation 4 would win out of the Xbox One. That was back in rumor land. We know that both Sony and Microsoft announced their consoles would not be backwards compatible. Microsoft said their console would have some TV stuff and a camera. Sony’s console, however, would be $100 less expensive than Microsoft’s console. This chart explains some of the differences based on actual reporting regarding the two consoles. 

As I explained in May, all of the interest stuff on the Xbox One will require a $60 per year fee. Want to watch Netflix or Youtube, browse the internet, or make a Skype call? You need to pay $60 per year. Sony charges a $50 yearly fee only for setting up on-line multi-player matches, and they feel so bad about this that they include a free games every month. For both people who play games on-line and people who don’t, Sony’s console is a much better deal. 

Reports have also come in regarding the performance of each console. Despite being half the size, Sony’s console is more powerful. The Xbox One cannot play all of its games in full 1080p HD. To put this in perspective, the 8 year old Xbox 360 also cannot play all of its games in full 1080p HD. Pundits say that regular gamers won’t notice, but if I’m spending $400 to $500 for a game console, I want the one with the most pixels. 

Microsoft is trying to steal the show with its Kinect camera and HDMI input. This will supposedly make the Xbox  One a future perfect all-in-one voice activated living room computer in the vein of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The HDMI input is only as good as its support for third party devices (and the adoption by third parties of software that will work with the Xbox One). For example, how will the Xbox One work with my over-the-air only DTV Pal DVR? The Kinect voice control is only as good as the users willingness to use it. I love using Siri on my iPhone sometimes, for some things, but not all the time for everything. Reports have come in regarding the use of voice control, and it seems more mandatory than supplementary. These features seem more like things Microsoft wanted to foist upon us to set its console apart from the competition and less like things we actually want to use.

Sony has quietly come in with useful features, principally the headphone jack in the game controller. Roku was the first company I know of to include a headphone jack into a remote. The idea is, why pay $100 for some IR blasting headphones when headphone support can be built. This would have been such a great thing back in the days I had roommates and then, later, babies. Anyone stung by the sticker shock on Microsoft’s proprietary add-ons will appreciate the Playstation 4’s inclusion of Bluetooth support. Sony also has a separate $70 camera and voice add-on, and I appreciate that it is separate.

Both consoles fail in the zone of backwards compatibility, and not just for games. Neither console will stream media from a local server. At lease you can “push” media to an Xbox One from a “play to” device. Sony says they will add DLNA support and CD music support to the Playstation 4, eventually. Honestly, I do not understand whey Microsoft and Sony are so boneheaded about excluding these features. The reason I never used my Xbox 360 as a media player is because Microsoft made it so darn difficult. (You had to load music one CD at a time and the DLNA support was poor at best). Because of the prior gen’s failings, I have an Xbox 360, a DLNA supported Blu-ray player, and an Apple TV. If I bought either the Xbox One or the Playstation 4, I would still need my DLNA support Blu-Ray player and an Apple TV. What have Microsoft and Sony been doing the last 8 years? 

One last note on the games: the majority of titles on both consoles are also available on the old consoles. Even next year’s most anticipated game, Destiny, will also be available for the old consoles. The new games, Destiny no doubt included, will all be limited in some degree by the capabilities of the old consoles. Considering the enormous game library on the old consoles, the minimal differences between games on old consoles and next gen consoles, and the superior media playback options on the old consoles, the new consoles are less desirable than they should be. 

Words of Annoyance

Full disclosure: Words of Wonder has everything I hate about contemporary games. In-app purcases. Fake currency. Facebook connections. On-line play only. In the future, we will look back at this period of games and cringe. Until then, we can avoid games like this.

The cruelty of a game like Words of Wonder is saddling a crushingly heavy bundle of profit friendly features onto an otherwise innocent and fun game. The in-app purchases make the developer money directly. The Facebook connection makes the developer money indirectly, by using the players as un-paid promoters. The on-line only play is baffling, as it does not appear to serve the needs of the developer or the player. Remove these no-fun features and the game itself would be pure bliss. Scrabble-like work making games are fun, and if you want to play a fun word game without any annoyance, I highly recommend a straight up word game like Dabble.

Think of the code monkeys making these games a realty. Many of them learned game development because they wanted to make great games. They start making great games and fell really good about themselves. Then some marketing demon tells them to add in-app purchases because in-app purchases make money. Then another marketing demon tells them to add Facebook because Facebook increases the market. The code monkeys stop feeling good about themselves. Some of them give up on their dream of making great games. Help the code monkeys; don’t download games like Words of Wonder. 

Pudding Excellence

Beware iOS game recommendations. Beware any game recommendation. Remember when someone recommended Tetris or Snood? It’s fun they said. Like a drug dealer, they never tell you the about the darkside: the addiction, the sleepless nights, and the regret.* Pudding Monsters is not like that. Pudding Monsters has an ending. See for yourself:

How do you complete Pudding Monsters? By finishing every puzzle with all possible configuration of stars: no stars, one star, two stars, and three stars. Do that, and the game actually and truly ends. Sure, there is that note about achievements, but finishing the game is achievement enough for me.

How long does it take to complete Pudding Monsters? For a couple of nights, my family was in Minnesota and I had the whole house to myself. Rather than do something productive, I spent my free time watching Breaking Bad on Netflix and playing Pudding Monsters on my eye phone. Those two days were enough to complete all the levels. To complete all the levels in every configuration took me another two and a half months of playing every now and then. 

Pudding Monsters will give you a hand and sell you solutions for each level. Or as my wife suggests, you can look up the solutions on YouTube. I will have none of that! If I have to look up the solution on YouTube, I might as well not bother playing the game. Yet, there was one aggravatingly difficult level and my finger brushed up agaisnt the hint button. Much like the aforementioned drug dealers, Pudding Monsters will give you one free hit, er, hint. Here is that dastardly level and the means of solving it in each possible configuration:

hardest level 3 stars

hardest level no stars

The no stars solution is actually the harder one. Pudding Monsters is a great puzzler for thinking outside the box. The entire game teachings you that flinging puddings to the outside of the screen is wrong. In step 4, because the pudding is half in the magnetic zone and have nestled up agaisnt the building, flinging it to the outside of the screen seems unnatural. Many of the solutions defy linear thinking, and my best solutions were made the next day, with fresh eyes.

* Full disclosure, a friend in law school did warn me about Snood. Kids, don’t play Snood.

We’ll Hello, Camera

Camera and photo apps for iOS are a dime a dozen. (Not literally, most are $0.99). Camera+ stands out as the gold standard for camera apps with features I actually use. However, a freebie I downloaded last week has an interesting set of art inspired photo effects. The ridiculously named Camera 360 Concept – HelloCamera turns photos into works of art. See for yourself:

The pose is courtesy of my 7 year old son, pretending he has a nail in his finger. The photograph is courtesy of my wife. The grid is courtesy of Diptic

Two side notes. One, HelloCamera is easy to use but other than the art effects, the app is unremarkable compared to Camera+. Two, iOS on the iPad will run the retina display version of iPhone apps, and for my iPad 2, this means iPhone, apps are full screen by default and look great. (Though I do prefer universal apps.)