Friday, June 23, 2006

Review: ABC Television Shows Streamed for Free with Ads

Given the recent news that Disney says ABC free web TV a hit with consumers I figured I would give this another try. When they first announced this functionality, I tried it and it crapped out pretty disasterously, so I hadn't given it another thought. But this week I have had decent success using the feature to watch the last season of Alias. I was curious how the show got wrapped up, so this seemed like a good way to find out since I missed it when it aired, didn't Tivo it, and don't have an iPod video to download shows to. This isn't a commentary on the show, just the technology and the overall experience. First, the best thing about this is that its free, this is certainly not an experience that I would pay for. At first, the presentation seems slick, like a good experience, but the more you use it, the less satisfied you become. The video quality is pretty good, but not great, with a decent number of video artifacts. I wouldn't call it HD quality at this resolution, its definitely more heavily compressed than I would like. Skipping around within a show is good, fast, but there are no Chapters to jump through, say if you want to skip the opening recap. The Bad
  • Too many clicks - Getting to the point of actually viewing a show is a lot of clicks if you don't want to view anything but the most recent show. If you are trying to catch up on a season, its annoying.
  • No bookmarking - The next annoyance is no bookmarking. If I am watching a show and have to close the current session, I have to remember where I left off, there is no concept of bookmarking where I might have been in any show.
  • Pausing frequently doesn't work. Pausing for short periods of time seems fine, but for any extended duration, say over lunch, gets very iffy.
  • Server bandwidth problems - Over one multiple hour session, there were many times where the server couldn't be connected to anymore, with frequent restarts of the web app to fix the problem
  • Performance Is OK to terrible - Performance while watching a show is ok, nearly 50% of my ThinkPad T42's 1.70 GHz is consumed, but during some ads, the box gets absolutely crushed
Overall, at least until June 30th when the ABC web site hints something will change, perhaps in the feature not being free but who knows, this is a pretty good way to catch up on some ABC shows you may have missed. The key question is, would I use this instead of buying episodes from iTunes? Only if portability was not a concern, then I would probably pick this over iTunes, especially if it stays free.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Review: Xbox 360, Microsoft's Best Product Ever

My wife purchased an Xbox 360 for me as a gift for my 31st birthday in April. I actually argued with her NOT to buy it, as I said at the time I was holding out until the PS3 and Wii details were announced at E3. She ignored me, as wife's are so good at doing, and now I have a next generation console. The Xbox 360 is easily Microsoft's best product ever, as Engadget in an editorial on the future of the PC recently hinted, and I agree so I figured it was time to write the review. The Xbox 360 is Microsoft's most Apple like product. The ability to control the whole widget proves its superiority to building compelling product once again (e.g. iPod, Mac). Especially with the Spring 2006 update to the system software (which added a download manager, an annoying problem in the RTM version, and DVD playback improvements among numerous changes), the system is very refined. There are still some features I want to see added to the Dashboard (e.g. Turn off Notifications while watching a DVD), overall the attention to detail and the execution of the implementation are excellent, unlike say Windows in general. The mission with the 360 is to be an excellent game machine for power gamers, and Microsoft has succedded admireably.

As far as game graphics, things are hit and miss depending on the title. Call of Duty 2 looks great, very impressive even at just 480p, it makes me think next-gen, as does Oblivion and Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, but Hitman: Blood Money only looks good, but not mind-blowingly better than Xbox Classic.

Controller The wireless controllers are the first ones I have used that "just work" and I can't detect a difference between wireless 360 and wired Xbox Classic. Even with the headset in sending and receiving audio, no latency that I could detect and immensely satisfying no to have cables dangling (except when charging of course).

The controller itself is easily the best of any Xbox controller, and I prefer it to the PS2 controller. It feels very comfortable, they fixed the white/black button disaster of the previous two Xbox controllers (I could never hit them without loooking for them), replacing it with shoulder bumpers that are easy to hit, and everything else just feels right.

Xbox Live Marketplace Being a previous Xbox and Xbox Live user, one of the things I was most interested in was how MS was going to extend the Xbox Live functionality. Marketplace is very much like taking the iTunes Music Store and making it about games. This is one area that greatly benefited from the Spring '06 patch, with better categories, the download manager (RTM only allowed you to download one thing at a time, and nothing else could be done with the system, ARRRGHHH), and better identification of new content. All that aside, the killer ability is downloading game demoes. This is one of those core abilities your take for granted on the PC, or even listening to song previews on iTunes, and adding this to the Xbox was a magnificent addition. Frankly, I didn't know about this before I got the 360, and it was a very pleasent find.

About the only thing I find missing here are content Notifications. Why can't I subscribe to, say Halo 3, and whenever I logon to the box, new content is automatically downloaded and I am told its available? I think Nintendo has hinted at this with the Wii, and MS should be able to easily add this with the next X360 patch, just use RSS!

Xbox Live Arcade This feature is also a very welcome surprise, and like a lot of people, I downloaded Geometry Wars. I love the concept of simpler games available for download that don't require hours and hours of time just to get into. I am eagerly awaiting Street Fighter.

DVD Playback One of the tipping points for getting the 360 was that my Xbox Classic was having a hard time playing back Netflix movies. The DVD playback software on the 360 is leagues better than the Xbox Classic, information overlays are transparent and nicely down, and greatly improved with the Spring '06 update. One of the only drawbacks I knew about was no upscaling to HD resolutions, which was added in the Spring '06 update over the (optional) VGA connector. Also, the picture quality seems better.

Ok, so what's wrong with it? There are only a few issues with the 360, which I am sure Microsoft is working to address. When playing games, the fans are very loud when playing a game. The surround sound thankfully drowns out this noise except during quite times, but that is acceptable. The power supply is frikkin' huge, immense actually, and its pretty damn silly looking and I can't stick it behind the entertainment center for fear of overheating, so it sits right behind the X360 on the shelf, kind of ruining the asthetics of the X360 which are very good, with one exception.

The hard drive, which slots onto the top of the 360, even at the .5 inches it is, is out of place because its not flush with the rest of the case. I would have preferred they simply extended the case so that the left edge of the X360 and the HD were flush. I can imagine they did this as an optical illusion to make the X360 look just that much smaller, but its kinda transparent and they aren't fooling anyone.

I don't have an HDTV yet, but there is no HDMI connector available for the 360, and my understanding is more hardware would be needed in the box for the 360 to add one. Perhaps this is coming with the HD-DVD add-on, but current information suggests not.

Backward compatability is problematic. Of the 5 Xbox Classic games I have on the shelf, only 2 worked up until the most recent backward compatability update. Halo 2 is a good example. Everything appears to work fine in the game, but then movie segments stutter. I don't have a huge library of old games that I need to play, but I have nearly bought a few old games that I didn't get around to playing before I got the 360 and I am glad I didn't buy them, because they weren't compatible with the 360. Also, any new titles that come out which aren't for the 360 aren't compatible. Here is an interesting idea. Hitman: Blood Money is out for nearly every platform, but it's the most expensive on the 360 ($60). Because of the back compatability issue, I can't choose the cheaper Xbox version to play the game, even if I didn't care about Achievements or the minor graphical enhancements.

Conclusion Even with the problems mentioned, there is no question this is the best home game console on the market. If the games on the 360 interest you, I highly recommend picking one up. Of course, there are rumors of a price drop this holiday season, so maybe you want to wait until of if it happens, but knowing what we do about the PS3 ($599 for the full deal), I would easily buy the Xbox 360 now and start playing some good software, and buy a Nintendo Wii when it comes out for $199 or at most $249.

Today's Top Windows Annoyance: Periodic System Hangs

One of the issues I have been dealing with on my IBM ThinkPad T42 with Windows XP SP2 for months has been system "pauses", or another way to think of it is "soft hangs". I didn't put it together until today, but basically anytime audio was playing, every once and a while, the screen would not paint, e.g. the cursor wouldn't move, and audio would skip. I reached my breaking point on this today and solved the problem. The problem was made worse when multitasking Whenever I encounter one of these problems, I always think to myself What would Mark Russinovich do?. I would definitely say he is one of my Windows Heroes, someone that makes working with Windows manageable, his tools are indispensable. Following his article on exploring Explorer.exe periodic system hangs I fired up Process Explorer. I had seen that System was responsible for the soft hangs numerous times, but I had always forgot about the Threads tab until re-reading the blog post. Lo and behold, kmixer.sys was taking up about 5% of CPU time and doing a lot of context switching whenever the hang occurred. So I Googled around, and it seems a lot of people have had problems with kmixer.sys before. Kmixer.sys is a kernel audio mixer, and one of the suggested fixes was to reinstall your audio drivers. On this ThinkPad, the only audio "hardware" is a Analog Devices SoundMax part. I have always disliked this solution, services and logon time apps get installed in addition to the drivers with the full driver package, and stuff just doesn't work without the full package. The most recent version I could find for the SoundMax drivers from IBM was I uninstalled that and then rebooted. Windows offered to search for a driver, so I decided to accept the invitation, and it automatically installed driver version It would seem that this older revision has done the trick, at least when the CPU is not under high stress, because I just watched an episode of Alias on completely audio skip free under normal work load, which wasn't the case before, and I am a happy camper. Thanks Mark!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Review: Google Web Accelerator

I stumbled upon the Google Web Accelerator a few weeks ago. Here is a screenshot off the Google site: This app claims to speed up web activity by using Google's vast and superior caching network, instead of the original site's servers, to satisfy web requests. The Web Accelerator installs a toolbar in both IE and Firefox (Windows only) which tells you how much time you are saving by using it. How does it work? A proxy server is running all the time which intercepts web requests and returns results from Google's server instead of the actual site you are requesting. In the few weeks I used it, the app claimed I "saved" about 30 minutes over direct requests to the web sites. Could I tell? Absolutely no. Let's presume the app is actually saving you time, like it says, its doing it a second or less at a time, so while the total time saved starts to look impressive, in reality its not noticable. And there is a huge downside, I could not get it to work with any Intranet sites that use NTLM authentication, even when you have configured the toolbar not to use the Web Accelerator for those sites. Should you use this? If you are saving fractions of seconds over time, it may be worth it to you at home if you are using Windows. I however, even if I had Windows machines at home or they come out with a Mac version, won't be using it. I can't perceive the differnece and even if I could, the idea that Google has even more information about my web habits doesn't sit well with me. Verdict: Uninstalled.

Thursday, June 08, 2006