Saturday, December 08, 2007

Halo 3 Class Action Lawsuit for not really being HD

Joystiq posted that a class action lawsuit is being filed against Bungie for false advertising of Halo 3 because Halo 3 is not really HD, it's just scaled to display in HD. Bungie admitted so in a weekly update post to their site just a few days after Halo 3 was released on September 25, 2007. Halo 3's engine renders to a 1152x640 framebuffer, actually 2 of them due to their lighting schem, making Halo 3 run internally at 640p. That image is then scaled to whatever your Xbox 360 is set to output to, 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. What is the minimum HD resolution? I think it is minimally 720p. Is a lot of fuss being made about 80 pixels? Actually no, we are missing 183,040 pixels, that sounds like quite a number of pixels. When you read Bungie's post, it is clear they thought they made the right decision, and I in no way would dispute their decision, what I am interested in as is the lawsuit is whether people buying Halo 3 have an expectation that the game is in actual HD, not scaled to to HD resolution. Put another way, if I bought an HD-DVD, and it says on the back of the box the movie is in 1080p, should I expect to see a 480p movie scaled to 1080p? The answer is clear cut, no. It would seem to not matter how little the Halo 3 engine "cheats", or how good the 360 can scale to HDTV resolutions, what matters is if I expected Halo 3 to be in HD and I got what I expected. Let's look at some images.
Halo 3 InfoWhen you go to the Halo 3 game detail page on you see the image on the left. You could interpret that a number of ways, but without any preceding text, I would expect that the same runs in 1080p, which is 1920x1080, not scaled to it. That makes Halo 3 1,335,040 pixels shy of a true 1080p HDTV image. That is a huge number. Scaling can only get you so far before it's noticeable, you can't just invent millions of pixels without anyone noticing. Scaling down, no problem there, my equipment isn't up to snuff, but scaling up without consumer knowing about it, I have a huge problem with that. What about when you buy an Xbox 360, is anything said on the marketing that would lead someone to believe High Definition was a feature?
Xbox 360 HD ComponentXbox 360 HDMI ReadyOn the Xbox 360 Pro info page, you see the text in the images to the left in different spots on the page, but that's it. Microsoft's language here never explicitly says something like Experience gaming in True HD, but I do think the expectation is created between what you see on the Halo 3 site, and the retail box, and what you see on the Xbox 360 site that you are going to be gaming in true high-definition, the image you see will be native HD, not scaled to that output resolution.
I don't think it's a stretch all, I know that is what I expected with the 360 and absolutely for Halo 3. Apparently it's not just Halo 3 that has this problem, but a decent number of other games also render at less than HD resolutions.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Tip: Signup with Catalog Choice and stop unwanted paper catalogs

I just wanted to pass along a tip I got from Chris Pirillo. Get a lot of catalogs in the snail mail that you don't want? Register with Catalog Choice and opt-out of all that junk. Save some trees and save yourself some time.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Thoughts on Gerstmanngate, or Heightened Consumer Product Expectations

N'Gai Croal at Newsweek's Level Up has written an excellent article on what the Jeff Gertsmann firing from Gamespot (a CNet company) means for game publishers and the video game press. He covers the controversy from a larger publication perspective that he writes from and the shielding editorial receives because of it. He also talks about enthusiast sites like Gamespot where they earn their living primarily from game publisher advertising deals. GameSpot has posted their most definitive commentary to date on Gertsmann's firing earlier today, where they clearly deny that game publisher pressure (Eidos) had anything to do with it. The whole situation stinks. I was a frequent GameSpot reader before this episode, and Gertsmann was my favorite reviewer, the only game reviewer I knew by name and trusted. I have stopped going to the site since the story broke weeks ago now.
While GameSpot continues to deny Eidos was the direct cause of Gertsmann's firing, his review of their game, as N'Gai and numerous commenters on today's GameSpot explanation speculate, Gertsmann's Kane and Lynch review (since publishing heavily edited) may just have been the last straw for GameSpot parent CNet. MTV's Stephen Totilo has a pretty good interview with Gertsmann which to me seems to hint that Jeff nor any previous review bowed to pressure from advertising, but makes clear Gertsmann's strong opinion of how to keep the integrity of a game reviewing operation intact. 
From my perspective, the pressure on game publishers, and in fact producers of all content, has gone up dramatically with the Internet as consumers have become more choosey about what content they will even think about. Rotten Tomatoes (an IGN company), Game Rankings (a CNet company), and MetaCritic (another CNet property) are the tools that consumers user to decide if content in question is worth their precise time. All these rating aggregators are a shorthand for the quality of content. In my experience over the last few years, the bar keeps going higher for consumers to even notice your content. This may be most prevalent for video games because of the time and money involved.
Games are the most expensive up front consumer entertainment you can buy. $60 for a new Xbox 360 or PS3 game, $50 for a Wii game, with PC games sold at a large variety of price points. With the amount of ways to entertain yourself, this is a pretty big cost to first justify and then absorb for a consumer if a video game isn't good. Then there is the time commitment. You waste 2 hours on a movie if its bad, an hour on a music album, 5 minutes on a song, but anywhere from 10-50 hours on a game, and you may not know whether that game is good all the way through into the final hours of gameplay, whether it was worth your time, is a satisfying ride. That is a tremendous amount of time to invest in a piece of entertainment. The risk is too high that you aren't going to be entertained according to the initial investment in the game. This is my theory on why a lot of games don't sell and aren't talked about unless their MetaCritic/GameRankings score is over 90%. Particularly for core gamers, the Xbox 360 owners (primarily now driving the software market) that rush out to buy the hot new title every week. If developers aren't bringing their "A" game, don't even talk to me. We have all played enough mediocre games, why should I bother with them anymore? Sounds snobby as I write it, but I see it happening, and I know I am doing it. Assassin's Creed for 360 has a Game Ranking score of 84%, you couldn't pay me to play it.
With this trend, it's plausible, even probable, that GameSpot is trying to insure continued strong advertising buys for promising softball, powder puff reviews of advertised product. Does this serve consumers, of course not, but it will keep the checks coming at GameSpot as long as their readers don't catch on. And maybe Jeff wasn't fired for these reasons, but these issues aren't going away, unless that is review sites break free of known advertiser revenue and make it all anonymous. Google AdSense?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tip: Two useful new Quick Look Generators, aka Plugins, for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard

Quick Look is absolutely one of the best features in Leopard, and is a huge productivity booster. Click on any file and hit the spacebar, and boom (think John Madden), you see the contents of the file. This works great, except when you are missing a Quick Look Generator to expose the contents of the item. Leopard doesn't ship with very nice plugins for Folders, ZIP files, or DMGs. By nice, I mean it only shows a much larger version of the items' icon and some pretty big text with standard file or folder properties. I want to see inside everything using Quick Look. Fortunately, Apple has a Quick Look Programming Guide and a developer/designer pair have implemented their own ZIP and Folder generators:

I installed both earlier today and so far they work great and provide exactly the functionality you want from a Quick Look Generator.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Troubleshooting SysFader crashes in Windows on Parallels 3.0 for Mac

If you see something like this:
SysFader Crash

After a lot of googling, there are two likely causes of see crashes like this:
  1. Page Transition Animations. Something is wrong with your graphics card driver and is causing fade animations to crash
  2. Office 2003 and Office 2007 installed side-by-side. I know, how could this go wrong ;-)

You really have no idea which one is going to solve the problem for you. What was causing this crash every time was trying to open an MS Office document from a Windows SharePoint Services 2.0 site.

Door Number 1
I found number 1 above as a possible cause of my SysFader crashes first, so I did all the workaround steps on Windows Server 2003 (SP2, but it doesn't matter):
  1. Go to Display Properties -> Appearance -> Effects -> Uncheck Use the following transition effect for menus and tooltips
  2. When that didn't work, in Internet Explorer, goto to Internet Properties -> Advanced -> Browsing -> Uncheck Enable Page Transitions

When this didn't work, and I hadn't found number 2 yet, I started thinking through what it could possibly be. These were the possibilities I came up with:
  • Parallels General VM Bug - I am on the latest Leopard compatibility beta, 3.0 5570, so entirely possible. Once I searched through the Parallels Mac Public Beta forum, and no one had reported the SysFader issue, so I weighted the probability of this down.
  • Parallels Video Driver Bug - I turned off video driver acceleration, I still had the issue, so I also weighted the probability of this down.
  • User Profile Corruption - After I discounted the Parallels probability, I started failing back on standard Windows troubleshooting. An easy way to verify if an issue is profile related is to logon to the same system with a different account. I did that, logging on as local Administrator, and the problem went away. Or at least I thought. After I repeatedly tried to download Office documents from SharePoint, I went and deleted my main user profile. I backed up everything of course first, but still, I wiped it out. Then a few hours later, the Administrator account started doing the same thing. I started to get angry, I actually think the first though was fucking Windows, but I just started googling again.

Door Number 2
Then I found Jeff Widmer's Blog, who linked to Paul Wu's Blog which suggested renaming a DLL that gets installed with Office 2007, that SharePoint attempts to load when opening any Office document. Why rename it? Because I have Office 2003 applications also installed, and there is a bug in this DLL, OWSSUPP.DLL, that got through QA. Sure enough, renamed this file to OWSSUPP.DLLX (name doesn't matter), fixes my problem, but doesn't show a nag dialog like Paul suggests. I would imagine that before you install Office 2007 SP1, whenever that gets released, you should rename the file back to the expected name, and hopefully the fix for this issue is included in the service pack.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Review: BioShock for Xbox 360

** Spoilers **
I know, BioShock was released way back in August, it's November (barely), why am I still talking about this? After the long Thanksgiving weekend, I finally put the nail in the coffin. What took so long? I work a lot, I had a pretty big vacation at the beginning of November, and I had this Halo 3 diversion in between. What more can be said about this game? I think quite a bit.

I nearly quit the game. This is really the inspiration for this post. I talked to another friend last week, a pretty big gamer himself, and it came out that he quit BioShock in the same spot I was close to quitting in. This is the point where you have to save the trees in Arcadia. Saving the trees by itself is a fine goal, but it came in a somewhat confusing level, and it came after a long pre-amble to this actual goal. The level just felt like it went on and on. But I slogged through this level, and I am glad I did...

When the game starts, the game is nothing but confusion for the player. You don't know why, from a story perspective, you are doing what you are doing. You land in the middle of the Atlantic and you just happen to crash near a lighthouse of sorts, which just happens to lead to this beautiful underwater city. Always seemed farfetched, but you went with it, and you listened to the radio messages from Atlas telling you what to do and why you should. But you aren't given a choice what to do, you are in effect on rails. You do get the choice to Harvest or Rescue the Little Sisters, which are protected by the Big Daddies, but why? They don't bother you as you move through levels, but you are put in a position to have to do something to these creepy girls or you won't be able to move through the game. The choice comes so early in the game, so you can start upgrading the character, without much explanation, that you just feel bad about doing it, that is if you think about it. The presence of this choice though is what elevates the game over other shooters because you have some sense of this affecting the outcome of the game. But as you will see, you don't really get that payoff. From there, you have nearly too much choice about how to get to goals, but you go from goal one to two to three and a big arrow points you along the way, all the while dealing with Little Sisters to upgrade. I think this is why I nearly quit, the section where you are on rails without truly understanding why, again from the story, goes on to long. That is until you get to Ryan.

The whole point of the game until you get to Ryan is to get to Ryan and kill him. When you get to Ryan, you completely understand how on rails you are. This plot point totally explains what is going on, and it's a beautiful way to explain the standard goal-oriented rails of any shooter. It is so beautiful in fact that you in some ways grow disappointed that after this junction in the game you aren't given any actual choices, you have broken free of the mind control that Fontaine had you under, but the game effectively restarts. Instead of Ryan as the bad buy, it's Fontaine, and instead of Atlas as in your ear, it's Tennenbaum. Thankfully, part II is much shorter than part 1, but the gameplay doesn't really change at all. I wish once the character, Jack in case you missed it or didn't remember, is free, gameplay changed to give you multiple paths to get to Fontaine, the final boss in the game. In fact, as you listen to Fontaine and execute Tennenbaum's goals, he mocks you over the radio, escalating your frustration at not having control over really what you are supposed to do.

The final fight between you and Fontaine is, well for me, anticlimactic. He fights just like a Big Daddy. Actually he is easier than the Big Daddy because you get to fight him in such a wide-open space. A lot of the Big Daddy fights are in close quarters, so it was hard to side-step, but not Fontaine. He has a Big Daddy like bull rush, which is easy to dodge, so you can unload on him with whatever weapon you choose. Side note: you can carry too many weapons in the game. Halo has had this right since the first release, you should only be able to carry a limited number of weapons. In BioShock, you can carry I think 6-8 weapons, and they all have multiple ammunition types. Crazy. With this much artillery, in addition to the complement of Plasmids you have (another 5-6), Fontaine is easy to beat, and it requires no thought, just unload your heaviest weapons and your done.

Once you defeat Fontaine, the ending, the movie, is variable based on how you dealt with the Little Sisters throughout the game. You can read up on the variations on Wikipedia, but they aren't nearly enough to care about replaying the game making this one choice in the game differently. It's a letdown again that there aren't whole different branches of the game from the point you kill Ryan to the end.

While BioShock is a very good shooter with RPG elements, I don't think it deserves perfect scores or 95%. If I were going with a review system of something out of 5 anythings, let's just call them Exceptions, I give the game 4.25 exceptions. For the mathematically challenged, that is an 85%. Technically, the game is near perfect, but I don't think the story completely meshes with the gameplay. There is one bit of the technical that was a bit aggravating. You discover the story mainly through radio messages, and they can be hard to hear even when still, there is just so much audio at all times. Not to mention the radio "static" and a lot of heavily purposefully accented speech, it's hard to understand a lot of times.

A Special Note On Achievements
I really have a enjoy/hate relationship with the Xbox 360 Achievement system. Most gamers I know are addicted to them, and I have a bit of this tendency, but my main problem with them is how they ruin the gaming experience. How? They pull you out of the game all the time. It would be like while watching a movie with an onscreen prompt telling you "Act 1", "Act 2", "Act 3", or what chapter of a DVD you were in, or having that old VH-1 style pop-up video on everything you watched. It sucks. The end of BioShock is a perfect example. After you think you might have beat Fontaine, an achievement for it immediately appears, before you are even really sure the game is over, but that achievement sure did ruin the suspense for you. And the achievements turn playing the games into work. If you are playing and you get these bragging rights points for it, you should make sure you are going to get as many achievements as possible right? Wouldn't it be stupid to play and not get the points? Well then, I better google how to play the game to get as many points as possible for it I guess. Listen to this, planning to play a game. It's crazy, but a lot of gamers are doing this with every title they get. I want off the treadmill. But I need help. I want the option, hey maybe it's there and I didn't see it, to turn off achievement notification, I want it to be passive. I also want though, if I do choose to participate, some progress indicator on how the achievement meta-game per title is going. When BioShock has an achievement called Tonic Collector that requires you to get 53 items throughout the course of the game, and I can't see how far off the mark I am when I finish the game, just pisses me off. You aren't giving me enough information for me to decide if I want to keep playing the achievement meta-game for any particular game. I sure hope the next 360 update gives some love to the achievement system.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The most likely reason Apple lowered iTunes Plus track prices

In case you missed it, Apple lowered prices on iTunes Plus tracks (you know the ones encoded DRM-free in 256 kbps AAC) from $1.29 to $.99. Now the simple analysis is that Apple caved to Amazon's MP3 Store priced for non-DRMed tracks of ~ $.99, but there is also another, and I think more likely reason.

Universal is trying to destroy iTunes. They are withholding video content, DRM-free audio content, and have refused to sign a long term contract with the iTunes Store for existing DRMed audio content. They are offering their music catalog to other online music stores, again Amazon, without DRM at $.99 a track retail pricing It seems obvious to me that Apple priced iTunes Plus songs as a huge carrot to the music cartel for giving DRM-free songs a chance to succeed. EMI and Apple were respectively the first major music company and online music store to offer DRM-free music, but a large motivator for EMI must have been not only the additional per track revenue, but making the $9.99 album price more attractive again. At $1.29, buying just a few songs starts to make the album price look more attractive. It has been nearly 5 months since EMI started offering DRM-free tracks on iTunes, and other majors have still not agreed to offer DRM-free tracks on iTunes. Apple has been pretty adamant that track pricing should be $.99, but it seems pretty obvious they sacrificed this principle in order to achieve the even more desirable DRM-free state for all music sold on its store. Since the majors still haven't cooperated with iTunes, Apple finally decided to remove the carrot. Any majors counting on the additional revenue when they decided to finally, inevitably, offer DRM-free tracks on iTunes can say goodbye to that forever. The window of opportunity is closed. I am sure Apple had Universal in mind when making this decision.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

On iPhone hacking and iBricks

I have had all I can stand, and I can't stand no more. It is this simple, you are responsible for what happens to your hacked iPhone. You terminated your agreement with Apple and possibly intentionally with AT&T to unlock the phone or run 3rd party apps. Stop complaining if your phone gets bricked. It is ludicrous to suggest that Apple is responsible for continuing to ensure your hacked iPhone continues to work with Apple updates. If you didn't want to use AT&T or the applications that came with the iPhone weren't good enough for you, then you shouldn't have bought the iPhone. Be accountable for your own actions.

We all want 3rd party applications on the iPhone, native apps, not just browser based apps. If it doesn't ever happen, then I might not buy 2.0, but it's also equally possible that native apps won't appear until Leopard drops, or shortly thereafter. But I want those apps to work and not break my phone, it's got to work, I can't go to try and make a call and the phone doesn't work. If it takes time to put together a proper SDK and distribution system, I am totally cool with that. Like I said, I thought the apps already on the phone were worth the purchase, and now I have the iTunes Wi-Fi store for free, but native apps would clearly cement the iPhone as the premier mobile development target. Apple clearly knows this.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Digital Video Distribution Revisited, or Sometimes the Oldest Solutions Work Best

When I posted my Apple TV review, I began an experiment to use digital distribution, primarily from iTunes, for video related content instead of the traditional satellite, broadcast, or cable TV providers. Ironically, given the recent NBC and iTunes breakup, the show I choose to season pass on iTunes was Eureka, Season 2 from Universal Television, which also owns NBC. In addition to buying a season pass to Eureka, I cancelled DirecTV in July and reconnected my huge television roof antenna to get free broadcast TV again. My conclusion: I am for the first time in possibly a decade back to using cable TV. Here's what I found out.

iTunes Still Doesn't Do What I Want/Need
In my Apple TV review, I made it pretty clear that iTunes 7.1 needed a bunch of upgrades to make it easier to use with my usage pattern, which I think is applicable to a lot of people with kids. iTunes 7.3.2 is the current version (at least until Sept 5. and the sync interface for Apple TV has hardly seen any love. The only change is a band-aid "sync photos first" option, thanks for nothing ;-). So I have done a lot of manual juggling of my iTunes library as I filled it with Eureka, various ripped movies and TV Shows that I own on DVD, and full runs of some shows, like Babylon 5, Season 1. Video takes up a lot of space, even at iTunes sub-DVD quality levels. The hard drive in my iMac G5 is only 80 GB, my iTunes library with all content is bigger than that, so I have fragmented the content onto multiple external drives. I have manually scrubbed that 80 GB drive because iTunes can only download to the drive the library is on, and I didn't sink the time into moving it all to a larger external drive manually. And then I have to backup all this stuff because I own it, I can't just through it away after I buy it, which would be the equivalent of watching something on old TV, I can keep this file forever. Again, iTunes hasn't made the syncing or multiple sources on the Apple TV issue any easier. But I took the experiment further...

Bye Bye DirecTV, hello again broadcast
I have had some form of non-broadcast TV for oh, 23 years. I think my parents got cable TV when I was around 8 years old because I remember watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a zillion times on HBO. So I continued with my plan to drop DirecTV and use broadcast TV for live sports events and to receive HD local channels (ABC, CBS, etc.), or buy everything else from iTunes. That lasted about a month. Given my proximity to NYC (about 30 miles), I couldn't receive everything in HD, and the channels I could receive, only CBS was reliable, ABC was scattershot, and NBC HD never came in. At first it was liberating to know I wasn't paying for a subscription to stuff I wasn't going to watch again, that I was using the airwaves for free. But with the NFL Season and the TV Season about to start, my wife requested that we end this experiment and return to either satellite or cable TV. Using broadcast wasn't really a solution, the quality was much worse than I expected or could deal with, and it was unreliable. When my wife ran the shredder, it would interfere with reception, no I am not kidding.

This is DirecTV calling, for the low price of $684 a month, you can use our service DirecTV's HD offering are a mess. No two ways about it. To lease an HD DVR, upfront they want $150, a 2 year contract, and you give them the box back if you cancel their service. Not only that, but you don't get all local channels in HD. Crazy. My local cable company, Patriot Media (soon to be Comcast), rents their HD DVR for $6.95 a month, doesn't require any contract, offers all local in HD at no additional charge, and offers a decent selection of Pay-Per-View and OnDemand movies, some in HD (more on this in a minute). Plus, I can always get an actual Tivo HD for the cable service and use cablecards, though I give up the PPV and OnDemand features, so I might just stick out using the cable company DVR, even though it isn't as easy to use as Tivo. And cable turned out to be cheaper than the packages DirecTV was offering after I called the cable company a couple times and landed with a rep that offered a cheap $45 a month price for the first year (regularly $75). By the time my year is up, maybe Verizon FiOS is in my neighborhood, but I am not under any contract.

This is the cable company with modern and ancient technology
HD local channels using the cable companies HD DVR look beautiful. They are clear, no compression artifacts at all, it is startling. Startling in comparison to how bad the regular cable channels are. They are worse easily than DirecTV, with more compression artifacts or weird display problems than DirecTV, and even worse looking on my HDTV than shows bought on iTunes (when viewing the same show). It's such a weird juxtaposition. But HD movies OnDemand, that is very surprising

HD Movies Rentals, Cable body slams Xbox Live Marketplace, iTunes MIA
WIth the cable companies OnDemand Movies service, I was able to watch Zodiac in HD in about 15 seconds. It looked great, and it never stuttered or slowed down. But the selection is limited, so I tried to rent 300 in HD from the Xbox Live Marketplace. 7% of the movie download, the 360 tells me the movie is ready to place. I play it, 49% of the way through, the download rate can't keep up with real-time viewing. I have a fast cable connection, should be plenty fast with a 15 minute lead to watch in realtime, no dice. I give up, then delete 300 because it expired from the 360 before I had time to watch it the following night. I decided to try The Fountain in HD from Xbox Live Marketplace, and I watch it in 10 minute chunks, pausing and waiting for the 360 to build up some buffer, before I get to around the 20% after 2 hours and it's bedtime. Pathetic. I ran a speed test while The Fountain was downloading, and I was pulling 7 Mbps with the film supposedly downloading full steam. I called today and got Microsoft to refund me the points for 300 and The Fountain because I won't be able to watch The Fountain before it expired tonight. This wouldn't be such a big problem with the 360 if it weren't for the fact that the OS is way to aggressive about allowing you to start watching the movie, and thus starting the countdown timer, than it should be. It allowed me to start watching The Fountain with only 2% downloaded, and I trusted it since you can't see the download rate, just a percentage, I won't make that mistake again. The other solution is to eliminate the 24 hour expiration. It is totally unreasonable, hell with physical DVD rental I can keep it 2-3 days no problem, there are zero valid reasons why I can't, even with a rental scheme, keep a download file more than 24 hours. Or how about don't start the 24 hour countdown until you have started watching it AND all the bits are downloaded. Is this really so hard to accommodate? Those suggestions won't solve the other huge problem, Xbox Live Marketplace rentals for HD are overpriced compared to my cable company. The cable company is only $3.95 for a rental, Xbox Live is $6.08 (I have conveniently converted the points total).

Sometimes if it isn't broke...For now, it seems like my local cable company will get my HD movie rental dollars and will be getting the vast majority of my TV Show dollars. It is still a wasteland of crap that I am never going to watch, but it is also the easiest, most complete, and best deal for watching video content that you want to watch, as long as you have a reasonably competent DVR. I still might end up getting a Tivo, but then again, with PPV and OnDemand, it's more likely I wont.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

More Xbox 360 Hardware Failures: Smoking Racing Wheels

I had seriously considered getting the Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel when it came out to play Project Gotham 3, but I am really glad I didn't now. Joystiq is reporting that the racing wheel smokes used with a wired power source instead of batteries and is going to "retrofit" the device to not smoke. Isn't "retrofit" just the weasel way of saying recall? Retrofit or recall, MS needs to do this for the Xbox 360, not just fix/replace them as they break.

My friend Jenny's writing partner Andrew wrote about the design failures of MS with the 360, and now you can add the wireless racing wheel to the list. Even more sadly, Jenny's Xbox 360 has been put in a coffin and shipped off to MS, where they will hold onto it for 4-6 weeks, this was after a 1 week wait for the coffin! Anyone that says they don't care about 360 problems because they have a 3 year warranty hasn't thought it through. If your Xbox 360 fails, you could be without it for greater than 1 and nearly 2 months!

All that said, and contradicting myself from the Xbox 360 recall post, I am in rapture with BioShock. When I told my wife I was going to get the game, she said "aren't you afraid you'll kill your 360 before Halo 3 comes out?". I am, but BioShock is so good I am willing to take the risk.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Tip: Determining the Hex Color value of anything on screen in Mac OS X

I can't remember when I started using Pipette, an OS X application that tells you what the HEX value is for any color on screen, but it has been very helpful during Web development. I adding the App Update widget to my Dashboard a few weeks ago, and one of the apps that gets "stuck" on figuring out that a current version is installed is Pipette. I went to Version Tracker to see if App Update was just messed up, and started reading the comments when user walfrieda points out Pipette is unnecessary. Mac OS X includes a utility that does more than Pipette called DigitalColor Meter

Sorry Pipette, but your going out with the Trash.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Review: iPhone - Starfleet Standard Issue

iPhoneI was on vacation on iDay (June 29, 2007). No one was in line to get me an iPhone, nor did I order one online. I followed the coverage online during vacation downtime though, eager to read about the line and hands-on reactions. When I got home, I called around on July 4th, none of my local Apple Stores had one. I had no intention to get one, but called out of curiosity. I went to the mall on July 5th with the intention to try the iPhone, and the Apple Store had a bunch of them. Within a few minutes of using the iPhone, it's pretty clear this is an amazing device. I still had no intention of buying one, but my wife pushed for it because she was smitten, figured out how to pay for it (business expense, check) and thus the 8 GB came home. My first impression...

Starfleet Standard Issue?! If you were a Star Trek The Next Generation (TNG) fan, you might have realized that the computing interfaces where multi-touch screens. The controls on-screen at any time were dependent on what the user was doing. Of course, this was all fiction, and back when TNG and later the movies where new, as a computer geek, that was always one of my eye roll moments. Where where all the buttons!?! The iPhone is the first device that nearly entirely implements a TNG-style interface (there are 5 physical buttons). All of the on-screen controls adapt to what the user is doing. It is breathtaking how far ahead the iPhone software is compared to the mobile devices I was using (Moto RAZR and Blackberry 7100) or that I have seen first-hand. My wife was emboldened by having the iPhone with the Web and Google Map, and she said why don't we really put it to the test, see if it can do all Apple claims and be a true mobile computer. So we took an unplanned road trip which we called iPhone Weekend.

Friday July 6th 2007
We didn't book hotels or print directions, we just got in the car and started driving south on the NJ Turnpike. We decided to go to Washington DC and take our son to the National Zoo (true story: when I wrote this part on my laptop riding the Northeast Corridor NJ Transit train to NYC, my 3G Verizon EVDO card couldn't contact Google to lookup the URL of the National Zoo. I had to use the iPhone because EDGE just seems to work everywhere). With my wife driving, the first thing I noticed navigating with the iPhone is that EDGE is faster than I expected and coverage is pervasive. AT&T and EDGE are the supposed weak link in the iPhone, but those criticisms seem overly negative. I had been using the iPhone on WiFi the previous day, and it was surely fast, but not laptop fast. EDGE is obviously not as fast as WiFi, but entirely usable, and certainly good enough. Google Maps loads data pretty fast. Web surfing feels slightly faster than 56K dial-up, and depending on location sometimes a lot faster. I never lost coverage with EDGE as we drove through NJ, into Delaware, and then Maryland. I used Google Maps to plot our way to DC, then killed time Web surfing, email, and seeing what's on YouTube. Again, EDGE is pretty good, even for YouTube because the video is scaled to your bandwidth. We left pretty late on Friday and weren't sure if we were going to drive straight-through (3 hrs, 41 minutes) or stop somewhere in Maryland.

Edgewood, MDAbout 40 minutes into Maryland we pull into a rest stop and decide we only want to drive another 40 minutes. I go back into Google Maps on the iPhone. I have our route from NJ to DC plugged in. I have been scrubbing along the map with my finger while we drive, I am acting as GPS. It is quickly obvious I don't really need GPS, it's a nice to have. Google Maps is a great tool to have on the go even without GPS. So I look ahead on the map and figure out that Edgewood, MD is about the right spot that we want to be. I then searched for hotels or motels around Edgewood, and it's just like this Apple movie on using maps shows. I tap on pins for each of the hotels, tap on their phone, and call to see if they have rooms available and pricing. It's all very slick. There are some problems with Google Maps though:

  • It wasn't obvious to me at first how to get out of directions mode (the two-way arrow on the bottom left)
  • Sometimes when you go out to iPhone home screen, do other stuff, and come back to Maps, it forgets what step in the route you are in
  • Google Maps crashes sometimes. You know this happens when you land back at the home screen without hitting the home button.
  • You really want to be able to tap anywhere on the map and get a push pin to do "Directions To/From Here" or use this as the current location to do searches from (filed as Radar Bug # 5350128)
We pull into our hotel, and score they have free WiFi. I get the access code from the front desk, plug it into their Web application on iPhone, and I am off surfing on WiFi again. My wife breaks out the MacBook and books our hotel for the next night in DC, while I surf the Web checking out the Zoo.
iPhone Weekend Day 1 Score: 9
Fantastic device. 1 point deducted for Google Map crashes

Saturday July 7th 2007
iPhone Weekend Day 2 started when I re-routed in Google Maps from Edgewood, MD to the National Zoo. My wife is again drove so that I could navigate using the iPhone. The drive is pretty straightforward, with Maps alleviating all doubt about how we get to the Zoo because of the map zoom level and turn-by-turn directions. Totally destroys paper maps, I can't imagine even buying one again. We get to the Zoo. I read that the iPhone camera is worse than Scoble's Nokia N95, so I wanted to try it out. My wife has the aging 3.1 MP Kodak the focus/shoot/review workflow is so slow, makes the iPhone feel like a revelation. I have been sticking it out with the Kodak because the images have always seemed good and it has good optical zoom. I didn't take a lot of pictures with the iPhone, because I wanted full-size images, but here is a sample iPhone image: I cropped this. Click for the original
This was taken under pretty poor light conditions, I was behind glass (so the iPhone non-flash was a plus) and pretty much in the dark, and I think this turned out pretty good, again like EDGE speed, better than I expected. I was able to take some shots with the iPhone we missed with the Kodak because of the glacial workflow, come on Apple, where is the line of full size cameras?

Hilton Washington Embassy RowWe wrap on the Zoo and need to check-in to the DC hotel, so I mapped from the Zoo to the the hotel. The directions again were spot-on, but I flubbed it up a bit. There is a tunnel under Dupont Circle, which I was supposed to avoid and take the circle instead, but I messed it up. Google Maps helped me out again, I just panned and zoomed around the map to get us routed back to the hotel. I am disappointed to learn we don't have free WiFi like we had at the cheaper hotel off of I-95 in MD. They wanted $25 for WiFi. My wife intended to look for restaurants and Sunday attractions, but paying that much money to use WiFi isn't going to happen. So we used EDGE on the iPhone with Google Maps and Safari to look up some restaurants. We quickly find one, immediately call and make a reservation, then call back and cancel after tapping the restaurents website and see the restaurant using Safari. Just a little too upscale for my sons's mood :-). We see a bunch of restaurants north of the hotel on Maps, but with the number of choices, I look to see if there are any reviews within Google Maps and there aren't. I try to hit a bunch of their websites to view the menu, but it's here that the lack of Flash is a real hinderance because most restaurants in the area, for whatever reason, use Flash, so I am stuck. So we decide to head out on foot and find Sette Osteria, which turned out to be quite good.
iPhone Weekend Day 2 Score: 8
I am loving it. 1 point deducted for Google Map having no star rating or reviews (Radar Bug # 5350338), 1 point deduced for no Flash

Sunday July 8th 2007
Visual VoicemailIt was really hot, 96 Degrees hot and high humidity. Our son likes rockets, so we decided for the cool air conditioning of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for our afternoon in DC. I used Google Maps to route us there, again the directions get us there with no problems. My wife reminded me that my voicemail wasn't setup, so I went to take care of that. I tapped the Phone button, then Voicemail and was a bit surprised to be dialing into voicemail. Where is my Visual Voicemail? Turns out you first have to setup using the bad old standard dial-up procedure, but then the iPhone recognizes you have voicemail setup and prompts you for the password. Once you correctly enter this, boom, now you can manage everything on the phone, and even set your greeting. It's wonderful.

We wrapped up our trip to the museum and I routed us out of DC and back to NJ. I was surprised to see us go a totally different way than how we came into the city. If I had done this on my own, I would have backtracked to get on I-95 again. We drove for an hour into Maryland and the traffic started. I looked at Google Maps, only a bit of the traffic showed up. I found the exact point we were on the map, no traffic on the map, but it's bumper to bumper. When you have a feature called Traffic in Google Maps, I better see all of it especially on a major road like I-95. This logjam didn't last too long, so we got back to Jersey pretty much on schedule, but then we hit the parking lot. Right after Exit 6 (where the PA Turnpike mergers with the NJ Turnpike), everything slowed to a crawl. Again, Google Maps only shows a small stretch of this in red much further ahead of where we were. I planned some alternate routes. Eventually we got off at exit 7A (inside Jersey joke: no not for a side-trip to Great Adventure), but as step 1 on the alternate route home. Google Maps didn't just automatically plan this out for me, I had to look around at surrounding towns and plot from there, but having Maps easily saved me 2 hours of bumper-to-bumper driving hell.
iPhone Weekend Day 3 Score: 9
This interface is really sublime. 1 point deducted for Google Maps not having total traffic data coverage

To paraphrase Morpheus: "Unfortunately, no one can be told why the iPhone is so good, you have to see it for yourself". I wrote a review like this because I don't think feature comparisons alone can help define what it's like to use the iPhone, you really do have to go try it. It may be the phone features that get you, or the best-ever iPod, the rich Internet experience, the Maps, or something even more surprising, like the huge and natural interface calculator (I am not kidding), but I think the iPhone will get nearly all that give it a try, and those people will really get the iPhone. I haven't talked about a lot stuff in depth, either the positives (watch the movies or commercials, it does all that just like you expect), the adjustments (text entry takes some training, but I am now faster than on my BlackBerry), or the negatives (application crashes), there are tons of reviews for that. If it wasn't clear from the above, the interface, the way you interact with the device, how smooth it is, and how you truly can access all the information on the Web in very high fidelity, are revolutionary. Eventually, all mobile devices are going to have to work like this, and I find myself wanted some of the functionality in the MacBook Pro now too (why can't I get auto-correct as I type like on the iPhone?). One more thing, if you were willing to spend $249 on an 8 GB iPod nano, the iPhone is only a $350 premium over the nano. When you think of it like that, it almost feels cheap.

iPhone Overall Score: 9 of 10

iPhone Tip #002: Skipping tracks without touching the iPhone

iPhone HeadsetIf you have the iPhone, you pretty much have to use the included headset since the jack is recessed in the body. This is no problem for me, I have been using the Apple provided headsets (earbuds) for a while, even eBaying my Shure earphones because I was constantly losing pads.

So why are the Apple earphones beneficial? Here is the uses I have found, and the best one skipping tracks forward while using the iPod:

  • Phone - Single-Click - End Calls
  • iPod - Single-Click - Play/Pause currently selected song
  • iPod - Double-Click - Skip to the next song in your playlist

This is typical Apple. Take the old style iPod remote, that attached to the earbuds and was always more a hassle than necessary to actually remember to bring and use, and whittle it down to just the essential features, Play/Pause and Skip to the next song.

One more thing, you can change the volume of the song that is playing in the iPod on the iPhone with the volume rocker on the side of the iPhone without unlocking the iPhone. Another nice touch.

Anyone else know any other tricks the iPhone headset does?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

iPhone Tip #001: Seeing Song Length in the iPod application

When a song or a podcast is playing in the iPod application on the iPhone, by default (pictured left) you can't see how long the track has been playing, or scrub (move forward or backward) through the track. But there is a way. If you just tap on the cover art, a small translucent strip will pop-up that shows you how far along a track you are, total time, and gives you the options to play continuously (the loop) or start shuffling right from where you are (the crossed arrows). This last bit is really sweet, but it took me a few days of using the iPhone to figure this out. This only works vertically, when you go widescreen, tapping the cover art shows you the albums track list.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Microsoft should recall the Xbox 360

I just read Newsweek's Level Up: Confession is Good For the Soul: Why Microsoft Must Be More Forthcoming About the Xbox 360's Flaws--Or Initiate a Recall by N'Gai Croal. First, Level Up has become one of my favorite gaming news sites. Everything N'Gai Croal says in the linked article is true. I have been telling friends for weeks now that I have been laying off the Xbox 360 out of fear that the device would break before I got a chance to play Halo 3. Every Guitar Hero II session has been accompanied by the thought that this could be the time when the box dies with the Red Ring of Death. A friend of mine's 360 pulled up lame last October with the Red Ring of Death, a mere 4 months after purchase. My 360 is 15 months old, but it hasn't died on me. Put the problems aren't limited to just the Red Ring of Death. Another friend whose Xbox 360 is 9 moths old, yesterday decided to stop playing games for her. No Red Ring of Death, but still this could happen to me and unless I convinced customer service to replace the 360, I would never play Halo 3 because I am not buying another console from Microsoft with these amount of problems. The 3 year warranty is not good enough for just the Red Ring of Death issue, it should cover all hardware failure. Not to mention the disc scratching issues. Everyone I know that has a 360 has some level of disc scratching and the consoles never move, they are completely stationary. If the 360 dies, I will either get a PS3 or just stick with the Wii. I can certainly find enough games to play without a 360, but it would kinda break my heart to never play Halo 3.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Review: Nintendo Wii

First things first, if you have a Wii, add my Wii code to your address book and send mail to innerexception at so our Miis can be exchanged:
My Wii Code is 1848 8764 9650 6855. Get your own WiiBadge at!

Back over Memorial Day weekend (May 28th 2007 to be exact), I finally got a Wii. I learned the night before that my local Best Buy had been stockpiling for the big Sunday flyer announcement, so I headed off about an hour before opening and got in line, as did a bunch of other people. I got it, but they were short on Wii Remotes, so I headed to the local Target, where I had never seen a Wii in the case before even though checking since launch, and they had 5. 3 left as I walked to the case, but the irony, and I haven't seen them in that Target again since.

In short, the Wii is pretty much great. This review from Scott Hanselman and this Wii series by Jeffrey McManus Wii some up a lot ofwhat the Wii is about. For me: Finally, something new in gaming. My wife, in-laws, friends, and yes even grandma have played and enjoyed the Wii a tremendous amount, none of them save a few friends would touch an Xbox or Playstation gamepad. Even the friends that have played and owned gamepad-based consoles before either admit how much fun the Wii is or are planning to get one, even holding off on Xbox 360 or PS3 to get a Wii. On June 10, mere hours before the Halo 3 beta expired, the gamer friend I had over was bored by Halo 3 compared to the fun the whole house was having with the Wii. It wasn't even close.

I am not just a casual gamer, so one of the most unexpected benefits of the Wiimote is that you have near mouse levels of control. Why is that important? For a First Person Shooter (FPS) player like myself, it might make all the difference. I have Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess in addition to Wii Sports, and it was during the early slingshot training sequence this became obvious to me, targeting was so much easier with the remote as pointer than an analog stick. If Nintendo's developers show the way with Metroid Prime: Corruption, the Wii could be revolutionary for hard-core FPS players as well as casuals, bringing close to the precision that PC FPS players have enjoyed on an easy to use console. The graphics are what they are, but if you can use the component cables, they do look better. The widescreen 480p Zelda is no Gears of War and isn't even a Wii exclusive, so I am extremely curious to see what Metroid looks like, but it really is all about the controls. I haven't got any other traditional FPS games yet, but I am seriously looking forward to Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition when I get back from vacation.

This isn't to say that I have junked the Xbox 360, I haven't. I got Guitar Hero II for father's day, and that is a great game that taps into the same kind of fun that the Wii does. But a guitar is a very specialized controller, the Wiimote makes many game experiences new again. Depending on when Mass Effect drops, the only game I get for the 360 the rest of this year might be Halo 3. Another thing I noticed playing Halo 3 Beta with random strangers and the Wii with family and friends. Playing games over Xbox Live with random strangers, not that much fun. Playing with people you know, priceless.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

NJ Transit Ticket Machines Run NT 4

I was pretty amused this morning to see the ticket computer at my NJ Transit stop:

Walking right up to the screen, you see the following (red highlight mine):

What genius told NT 4 it was OK to shutdown? 

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Test Post from Blogger Widget

Nice, but a little limited, no labels!

Friday, May 25, 2007

SharpDevelop 2.1 broke building in Visual Studio 2005 SP1

When I was researching Mono, I installed SharpDevelop to play around with. One of the first things I did was open an existing Visual Studio 2005 solution to see how the SharpDevelop IDE compared to VS. After I opened it, I let the IDE sit their since I had to go do other stuff, and when I came back to it, SharpDevelop had crashed with an unhandled exception. Crap, if the IDE can't even sit still without crashing, how could I even think about using this as my main IDE?!? There were some posts in the SharpDevelop Bug Reporting forum and I added one to the list (still waiting on a response, over a week later). So I stopped looking at it. Yesterday my dalliance with another IDE caused Visual Studio 2005 to go all Glenn Close fatal attraction and I missed a deadline because of it. This is what happened.

I hate you Publish...
The first thing I noticed that something was wrong was when I went to publish my site. I have written before about problems with Publish. Visual Studio was immediately acting weird. You care supposed to see this:

Instead in the status bar, I see this build succeeded. What?!?! At first I am ready to chalk this up to Publish not working, and I go to Scott Gu's blog to get that Publish hotfix. I know I am not seeing the error message described, but hey maybe the installer will fix it anyway. But something is wrong with the link to the hotfix, I see a page not found error. I eventually find DevDiv Hotfix Public Availability Pilot Program. In the table on the site, I find the hotfix, 3rd from the bottom:

I click the download link, only again to see this:

Argh! Again the Output window didn't automatically appear, so I open it and pin it to see if their is any more info and it says this:

Odd, what was skipped and why? Just a little higher up in the Output I see this:

It doesn't make any sense, even with a full rebuild, a clean and rebuild, and me dumping all intermediate products manually and cleaning out anything that looks like a VS cache. I am ashamed to admit, I even rebooted Windows, which I usually make fun of anyone for. It means they are out of ideas, and that was true of me, I was out of gas and starting to freak because I was supposed to have the bits deployed hours ago. So I bagged it, pushed the deadline to get the code tested a day, and came back fresh this morning and finally cracked it.

Do you want an extra project with that solution?
A thread in the back of my mind said "Didn't you open the solution file with SharpDevelop last week? Seems strange, but do you think it edited the solution file?" Hmm, could be, I wouldn't think there was any need to, but could be. So I opened up the directory and I see that TortoiseSVN says the solution file has been edited (icon on the left). Ut oh! I immediately do a diff, and their are two groups of changes, this:

And this:

I surely didn't add any more projects to the solution.

TortoiseSVN sure tells me I haven't, and the GUID in the highlighted block doesn't match anything in the solution file. So I revert the solution file to what is in the repository, and Visual Studio has no problem building or publishing! I haven't proved yet that SharpDevelop did this, it could be a Visual Studio bug. That is of course until I open the solution file in SharpDevelop again. I diff a copy of a SharpDevelop butchered modified solution file with the newly SharpDevelop mangled modified file, TortoiseSVN says they are identical, right down to the dodgy GUIDs used. If I isolate the changes, the problem is not the # SharpDevelop definition at the top of the solution file, it is the extra configuration junk.

A Cautionary Tale
You could say Visual Studio is a jealous lover. She found out I had an extra-IDE affair and made me pay the price with a blown deadline and hours of frustration. The fault was all mine though. My project contracted an STD (solution transmitted disease) by fornicating with SharpDevelop. It was only because I used protection, a good source control system, that this disease wasn't fatal. The solution recovered and has been deployed. If you are thinking of Giving up on Microsoft, or at least fooling around, be prepared for the consequences.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Is my blog fat?

The above image shows you what Firebug says it takes to load the blog before I posted this entry using the Verizon EVDO card. 1 MB? 27s? It's hard to believe. My immediate reaction is that the page weight of the blog right now is too high, it needs to go on a diet. But what to cut? How can I slim this down? This page weight link has some good tips, where is the fat on the blog? I used get|ben's page weight calculator to see where the fat was:

20 KB in Excess White Space? The rest, hey that's not so bad I think. 125 KB, so that means the rest of the 1 MB is in images? Yikes. But the excess white space, what can I do about that? I have never thought of this before, but apparently there is a whole cottage industry around HTML compressors. I guess you could also to some degree call them obfuscators, since they make the source extremely hard to read, but does having the source human readable really matter when its being served to a browser in production? In development sure, but I kinda wish HTTP servers would just do this instead of ZIPping the content. Why pay the compression penalty if you could get most of the benefit at "build time" without requiring support on clients? In practice all modern desktop browsers support GZIP compression, and in fact Blogger is already serving the content compressed:

Does anything on the server side already do HTML minimization (to distinguish from compression)? I didn't find anything specifically like this that is automatic, it all appeared to require developer interaction. If you do want to use HTTP compression with IIS, an article by Scott Forsyth seems to cover all the bases.
This is the load time in my office connection, so maybe the page is not that fat, but I also wish Blogger had a feature to only show the top, I don't know, 20% of a post with a jump to the full article. I have been working on a new very long post for a month now, and I have been holding off because I was worried about a bit the length on the home page. Oh well, I'll probably just publish it as one long article.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Microsoft Annoyance #001: Crazy Version and Service Pack Numbering

A co-worker IMed me a little while ago and asked me what the current Service Pack for Visual Studio 2005 is. I fired back cocksure that it was SP2, even thinking to myself can't he just google this? Then a pang of doubt entered my mind and I decided to check, I already had Visual Studio 2005 open, it was only going to take a second. And this is what I see:

What? The standard naming procedure for an update to a shipped Microsoft product has been since, oh 1995 at least, a Service Pack or SP for short (except Office, they used Service Releases for a while, but have "corrected" that mistake). Service Packs start at SP1 and go up from there until Microsoft decides to stop releasing cumulative updates containing all the hotfixes that exist for that product. Another exception is when the first public release of an SP is bugged, then they append a letter, like SP1a. So what is going on with the Visual Studio version number? It appears I might have a Service Pack installed, but which one? Why do I have to Google which Service Pack I have installed? Does this Visual Studio 2005 SP1 landing page inform me how to tell if I have it installed? No. The release notes? No. What's New? Try again. How about the download itself? Ah yes, I have to match up the version here to the one in the Visual Studio 2005 About dialog. Crazy. It took me 5 minutes to dig through links looking for a clear-cut way to tell.

This isn't just a Visual Studio 2005 problem either. Here is the huge About dialog from SQL Server 2005 Management Studio:

Maybe dumber, just version numbers of various components. If you are going to use terminology like Service Pack or the abbreviated SP, you should always have it in your About dialogs. What is so hard about doing even this simple thing consistently?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

StarCraft II !!! and Running StarCraft 1 on Mac OS X

StarCraft 2 has been announced. Blizzard pretty much rocks. I got seriously addicted to World of WarCraft, kicked the habit in Feb. 06, fell off the wagon for the Burning Crusade expansion, and time just ran out on the subscription, officially I am off the juice again on 5/18/07. I can't trash my install yet though, I tried on Thursday, but I hold out hope that an ala carte pricing model is introduced that is reasonably priced for those times when I need a fix. I just can't play WoW regularly enough to justify paying a monthly fee.

This was about StarCraft though, and I have a confession to make there. I never did finish that game. I finished I think the Terran part of the original game. I didn't get the game when it first came out, I bought the Battle Chest after playing through the original WarCraft III. With this real-time strategy games I always get stuck on a mission and lose interest. Same thing happened to me with WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne. Doesn't mean though I won't get StarCraft II the day it comes out, I do have a lot of fun with these games, even if I can't finish them.

The truly amazing thing though is that StarCraft has been updated to work on Mac OS X. This was a Mac Classic application, here are the original Mac OS requirements from the Read Me:
• Power Macintosh (or compatible).

• System 7.6.

• 16 megabytes of physical memory for a single player game. If you only have 16 megabytes of physical memory, you will need to turn on Virtual Memory. We recommend setting VM so your system’s largest unused block reports at least 27 megabytes free.

• Color display with a minimum resolution of 640x480 and 256 colors.

This is a processor architecture and major operating system revision away. This is all you have to do to get it installed on OS X:
  • Download the OS X native installer.
  • Run it, which worked fine for me from the disk image.
  • If you have the original game and Brood War expansion set, pick to install Brood War. It will automatically install StarCraft once it needs those files. If you install StarCraft first though, and then pick Brood War, you can't upgrade, this Installer will ask you to put the whole game in a new location.
  • Install the latest patch, at the time of this writing it is 1.15. You have to follow the instructions at that link, since its a copy the files yourself install.
  • Run the game, the opening Blizzard logo animation will stutter for a few seconds, I imagine as Rosetta translates the PowerPC instructions to Intel, but this clears itself up very quickly and then it's smooth as silk.

According to the release notes for StarCraft on OS X, a bunch of files were updated to use Carbon, the Mac OS Classic API that is available on OS X, which Mac OS Classic developers could adjust their applications to use to quickly have a working OS X application. The games system requirements are so low and runs so well in OS X (in my limited testing) using Rosetta, I don't imagine Blizzard would ever update it to be a Universal Binary.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Xcode and CSharpXcodePlugin do not play nice

After my last post, I am seriously just not looking forward to getting MonoDevelop to run to even see what that looks like on OS X. So I thought, might as well give the XcodeCSharpPlugin a try.

Right, that didn't work out at all. I don't know if it's because I installed Mono 1.2.4, or if it's just busted, but Xcode says the build succeeded, but there is no executable in the build folder, and not error messages. It might be related to fact that the Product has a blank named file in it, but I am sure not tearing into the project templates and all that to figure this out especially when this is nothing more than syntax highlighting for C# in Xcode and for command-line programs at that, no ASP.NET based stuff at all, and no IntelliSense. Ok, back to figuring out MonoDevelop for OS X...*sigh*

A comment on this post says its from Susan, the original developer of the plugin. So I screenshot exactly what I did even in the trivial case in the documentation (which yes I did read - mostly ;-))

Now to build...
Click for larger more readable version
And there is nothing to run...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Why use Mono to develop an ASP.NET site?

I might have spoke too soon, and my feeds failed me. When I wrote the original post yesterday, I had no indication that Mono 1.2.4 was released on May 15. Here are the complete release notes. I am kinda of surprised no feeds I subscribe to, and that is a long list, mentioned this bit of information. 1.2.4 fixes a large number of ASP.NET 2.0 compatibility issues, they consider the support complete. On the feeds thing, I have an idea. In NetNewsWire, I just added the Mono Project News feed, and the last entry is from March 2007, about Mono.AddIn. What? A new release and it's not published, that can't be. So I switched Safari over to using its' internal feed reader, and sure enough the Mono 1.2.4 release is the latest item. I get my feeds using NetNewsWire by proxy through NewsGator, it looks like NewsGator stopped updating the Mono feed or somehow this is broken. I turn off synching with NewsGator, NetNewWire gets the full Mono News Feed. Could other's be using NewsGator and not seeing that Mono 1.2.4 was published because of this? Or is Mono used so little that no one, not even FOSS or Mac developers cared?

Back on point though, I started following the instructions to start Mono development on OS X. Already had X11 installed, installed Fink, installed Gnome, and I have to stop because my train is pulling in but, and sorry if this is a whine, but can't they put together an installer package for OS X for all this shit? I mean seriously, I just want to get MonoDevelop up and running. Here is another article, even more daunting because of the long list of packages, to use MonoDevelop on OS X.

Original Post
I don't get it. I have been researching Mono specifically to develop a new ASP.NET based site, and I can't see choosing it as my target run-time instead of Microsoft's .NET runtime. These are the reasons why I can't justify using Mono:
  • Feature lag. ASP.NET 2.0 has been out since November 11, 2005. If you read the Mono ASP.NET FAQ says "currently we are missing WebParts and some tiny small features", but they don't say what various tiny small features don't exist. Later on in the FAQ it says "Support for 2.x ASP.NET applications is under active development, but it's not complete". Which is it, tiny small feature or incomplete functionality segregated off into a preview of xsp2.exe?
  • No ASP.NET AJAX control compatibility. This is listed under the Portability section and lists some other controls you might try. I don't think so, the ASP.NET AJAX stuff seems to work well, why would I risk that functionality?
  • Where are the hosting companies? The Mono ASP.NET FAQ lists 2!. I guess I could develop on Mono and deploy to MS .NET, but that is a huge development no-no to me, you as closely as possible develop on the same platform you are deploying on.
  • Where is the cost savings?. This comes down to hosting costs. The company I am consulting for is not setting up their own datacenter. Hosting for Mono ASP.NET apps vs. MS ASP.NET apps is either the same or within $5 dollars of each other. Ubiquity Hosting one of the two that are listed to support Mono has pricing starting at $4.95 a month, and Discount ASP.NET for just about the same storage and transfer rates is $10/month. That's it, $5/month difference?!?! $60 a year, $300 for 5 years to go with MS.NET? This is what free (as in beer) Mono and Linux net me in savings!?!?

The only reasons for Mono might be no Windows license and Visual Studio for developers. This might be interesting if I didn't already have a Windows license, but the Visual Studio part is intriging. Even that though, I have installed SharpDevelop which is free (beer again) and I might give that a go. Other than that, I feel like I might be missing something, but I can't put my finger on what it is, and the reasons against Mono ASP.NET seem overwhelming. I have to conclude at this point Mono for ASP.NET isn't worth it.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Don't get screwed buying Marvel Ultimate Alliance for Xbox 360

If like me you got Marvel Ultimate Alliance for Xbox 360 when it came out in Late 2006, the cover of the game looks like the image on the left. You can still buy this version on, but I would recommend against it. If you want the full game, you would then have to buy the downloadable content for another 800 MS Points/$10. Amazon has the game listed for $49.99 right now, but you can't resell downloadable content. Why does this matter?

On May 15, 2007, you can buy the Gold Edition for normal Xbox 360 game retail price of $59.99, but the kicker is it includes the downloadable content. Nice MS and Activision, charge the customers who bought the game in the first place for a few new characters, and then give away that content at the same price I originally paid for the game. If I wanted to eBay my Original Marvel Ultimate Alliance, I really love having to compete with the eventual Gold Edition sellers.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Apple TV Review, or iTunes 7.1 sync options for Apple TV are way to simple

I never reviewed the Apple TV once I got it. This was partially due to me not being a professional reviewer, I don't exhaust products when I get them to write up an immediate review, I use them as an end-user and final thoughts or issues only then really percolate to the surface. Also, I started using Apple TV with an SDTV+component video but no widescreen setting so video looked squished, it was unfair to give a review. Within 2 weeks of getting the Apple TV, I replaced the SDTV with an HDTV, a 52" Mitsubishi 1080p set. Since then, I have been very happy with the Apple TV. Let me get the good stuff out of the way:
  • Video quality is better than DirecTV on the HDTV. This is particularly true of widescreen content. I am talking about SD content, like Stargate SG-1, which is letter-boxed on DirecTV (the widescreen setting on the DirecTivo apparently does nothing here), so I have to zoom the the DirecTV input in some way, and it looks terrible. Stargate SG-1 from iTunes looks fantastic by comparison, it fills the whole screen without me doing anything. I have since dialed down the DirecTV subscription to the $35 family pack (which includes local channels) and have started to buy TV Shows from iTunes.
  • The UI is mostly great. Text is crystal clear, a lot of information is presented on screen about content at all times, and it is very easy to use. It really does make the Xbox 360 Dashboard look bad, even with the Xbox 360 Spring Dashboard Update. What am I talking about? The Xbox 360 Dashboard just doesn't optimize for lower clicks. This is especially bad getting out of a deep menu. Apple TV doesn't have this problem at all, and it "feels" faster to get around. The Spring 2007 Dashboard update makes menu speed much faster, but its not the display speed that is truly broken, its just the amount of navigation you have to do. Apple TV doesn't have this problem except for the Sources menu, which is why I say the UI is "mostly" great, and I will expand on this later.
  • Photos screen-saver is beautiful. This is just sublime, and totally unexpected. You just sit there watching to see what comes up next, it's really exceptionally done.
  • Ripped DVD video quality is excellent. This may be limited, I haven't tested this a tremendous amount yet, but here goes. I ripped Dune (Extended Cut) using Handbrake 0.8.5b1 with the Apple TV Preset. This means a 3000 kbps encoding bitrate. I then put the original DVD in the Xbox 360 (connected via component video), synchronized the scene playing to the same one on Apple TV (connected via HDMI) and watched part of the movie in split-screen on my HDTV. Then I started toggling back and forth between full screen for each input. Quality wise it was no contest, the file on the Apple TV appeared quality wise to be identical, but the Apple TV looked far better because the black level was deeper (even with the HDMI Brightness set to High). The 360 was washed out by comparison, with much worse color separation, it was stunning. I verified both inputs were identically configured on the TV (real nice thing about this TV, it saves all settings per input, sweet). Maybe I will do some more of these side by side tests, but this result was extremely surprising. With the Spring 2007 Dashboard Update I changed the Black Level, which I am pretty sure is new, form Standard to Intermediate, and the DVD I watched last night looked better, I could tell the letterboxes (it was a 2.35:1 ratio) were darker, so maybe this Apple TV "advantage" has disappeared, the video quality part, but the speedy access to movies without a disc is means...
  • Apple TV is silent and doesn't throw off as much heat as Xbox 360

All that said, I am frustrated with iTunes 7.1 and the overly simplistic syncing interface to the Apple TV. Why? You have to understand how I am using it.

Keep you hands off that DVD kid!
If you have a young kid(s), you know the punishment that DVDs take going in and out of the player. It seems kids (speaking from my experience and others I have seen) very quickly understand that shiny circles makes pretty pictures on big box when you put it in white box (Xbox 360, your player may vary) under the TV. What they don't understand is that fingerprints, chocolate, juice, and snot do not go together with the shiny circle since they get that stuff on everything else. And then actually placing DVD in tray is a recipe for scratches, assuming they scurry out of reach with disc in hand. Little kids also can't understand why you can't skip FBI warnings, trailers for movies you own but don't want to watch now, or any other preamble before watching the "show" as my son calls it. Actually, it makes no sense to me either why you can't skip all that stuff. With kids then you want:
  • Quick access to the show you actually want to watch
  • Hands-free access to the show
  • A large assortment of shows on hand as tastes can be fickle
  • To watch the same thing over and over again

Mom and Dad also watch Movies and TV shows, but the pattern is different. You generally watch shows and movies as they are released, and then not again for a while or possibly ever. Now that we are level set, how do we use iTunes and Apple TV to solve it?

Why do you sync again?
You can sync or stream content from iTunes to Apple TV. Streaming is so good, why sync? You can only scrub so far through streamed content before you run out of buffer, synced content is all on the hard drive. Streaming requires another machine to be on, once syncing is done, no other machines need to be on. So if syncing is a good option, how do you manage it?

Syncing Movies
iTunes syncs content to Apple TV in fixed priority order, the user can't change it. The order is:
  1. Movies
  2. TV Shows
  3. Music
  4. Podcasts
  5. Photos
If the content in any one category would fill the Apple TV Hard Disk Drive (HDD), then the next category down in the list doesn't get synced. Having good sync options and optimizing for your media is the only way to increase the probability that the content you want is on the Apple TV, it's certainly not a guarantee. Let's look at are options for Movies:

First thing you should notice is that you have to manage everything in groups, like unwatched or selected movies. This may be the Achilles heal of the iTunes sync interface, but I get ahead of myself. What options to those drop-downs contain?

This looks reasonable, I usually want unwatched movies synced, let's see what are options are on the second drop-down:

Ah, well I can surely survive individually selecting movies in this interface, but maybe I can get better control over the content with Smart Playlists, go all rules crazy on it, but...

Huh? Where are my playlists? What is this special batch of playlists? Why only these? It's inexplicable. Well I guess I am going to leave this on Selected movies, let's see what I can do with TV Shows.

Sync TV Shows This looks pretty familiar:

There is a subtle difference though. Movies syncs all unwatched movies and selected movies, but TV Shows syncs all unwatched episodes either All TV Shows or selected. There is no way to automatically get just unwatched episodes and then all episodes of certain TV Shows, it's maddening. Here are the drop-down contents:

Again the silly playlists restriction. If I had my own playlists, then I get to sort of what I want, maybe all of it. What do I want? Control over individual shows. Let me choose whether I want all episodes of a show, 5 episodes, or only unwatched, synced to Apple TV. Let's see what you can do with podcasts:

Sync Podcasts

Similar, but yet again different from either TV Shows or Movies. Why? I think the partial answer is in the way the content is acquired. You manage Podcasts entirely from the Podcasts section of your iTunes library. They automatically download when available if you have Subscribed to them, which means if they are configured for syncing to Apple TV, you don't have to do anything to acquire the content past subscribing, its just there. Keep that in mind. One more thing, where is the option to only sync the video in a mixed audio/video podcast feed?

Various Other Sync Problems
I have reported all of the following to Apple using Bug Reporter, aka RadarWeb. Scott Stevenson @ Thecacao has a good write-up on how to use this influential tool. I have been logging issues to Apple since November, and there is no doubt Apple actively uses this tool. Anyway, here are the other sync issues:
  • Some content changes do not trigger a sync to Apple TV. For example, if you have ripped some TV Shows from DVD and forgot to assign an Episode Number on the Video tab of the Info sheet before synching to Apple TV, changing the Episode Number will not trigger a sync. You have to un-assign the show from Apple TV and re-assign it.
  • iTunes restarts sync to Apple TV during a sync operation when a change is made Say you are synching a movie, it is > 1 GB, and you happen to change the Apple TV sync configuration during this operation. Even if the movie you are synching is still to be synced to the Apple TV after your config changes, iTunes kills the sync and starts over.
  • iTunes doesn't automatically initiate a sync to iPod on data changeHey this has nothing to do with Apple TV right. No, it's because of Apple TV this becomes so glaring. If iTunes can (usually, see above) detect changes and sync to a connected Apple TV, why can't iTunes do the same for iPods?
  • Tunes device list should include other Macs or PCs running iTunes for syncing It is inevitable that you are going to be able to purchase content in some form directly on the Apple TV. This means bi-directional sync (I would also say multi-master) is going to have to work. I say that your notebook or laptop computers should be treated as Apple TV's with screens. I want my iTunes Server (where all the backup and large discs are) to sync content not just with Apple TV and iPod, but treat all mobile computing devices the same. I more often use my MacBook Pro for mobile video than an iPod, no reason I shouldn't be able to sync them. And since you can wirelessly sync to Apple TV, this is a no-brainer.

Time for Some Solutions
Can most or all of these issues be solved? I am sure that the switch to subscription accounting for Apple TV means updates are inbound, I hope sooner than later, and surely some of these issues are being worked on. The release of EMI DRM-free tracks this month is going to mean a new version of iTunes, hopefully Apple TV will get some love. How would I change iTunes or Apple TV?
  • Make the sync and acquisition management of TV Shows and Video Podcasts as close to the same as possible, which means..
  • You should be able to subscribe to TV Shows, just like Podcasts, even though you haven't bought a Season Pass.
  • Management of TV Show/Podcasts acquisition settings should be at the TV Show/Podcast level
  • Treat laptops as Apple TVs with dedicated displays so you can bi-directionally sync content to them
  • Content changes in iTunes should auto-sync to all devices, and all changes to content should trigger this action, not a magic set
  • TV Show Season Passes need an overhaul. Enabling a "Subscribe" option would partially fix this, you are always going to have people deciding to watch a show through iTunes after the season starts. Also, there needs to be a Complete My Season option. I bought an episode smorgasbord from The Office, I want the rest of the season, I am not paying for a full season pass with 20% of the season already bought, and I am not paying full price either.
  • Eliminate the Apple TV Sources menu. This option allows you to choose whether you are looking at content from Apple TV, or another machine running iTunes, this is your streaming option. My question is, why does this exist at all? Once I configure iTunes on a machine to connect to an Apple TV, why doesn't Apple TV just show the content menus merged together from all the connected sources on the network? Why do I the user have to make this artificial choice at all? Here is how it works. You turn on Apple TV. It sees what machines are on the network. It shows you local content immediately, and then lazily adds content in from streaming sources. If the same content exists in both places, Apple TV prefers its hard drive of course. I don't even think the user needs an indicator where the content is coming from, but you can certainly add an icon if you want to. I am going to log this as a Feature Enhancement request.
  • When TV Shows are supposed to be released the day after broadcast air date, it better be there. Currently Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis appearing on iTunes are running behind broadcast, sometimes by 2 weeks. There is no excuse for this, in fact, there is no reason for these shows to not be released as soon as they are ready, forget about broadcast.
  • Need a movie rental option and movie purchases (everywhere, not just iTunes) are overpriced. The need for a rental option is obvious, but if it's as draconian as the Xbox Live Marketplace rules, I would still not be renting. What rules? Movies bought from Xbox Live Marketplace have to be watched within 24 hours once you start them, that just doesn't work for me. Movie purchases are crazy overpriced. Again, this is everywhere. HD-DVD's at Best Buy are $24.99-29.99, iTunes movies are $9.99-$14.99, regular DVD purchases are $9.99-$24.99. What is the point of buying? To have the content on hand if I decide to watch a second time. I discount the "collector" aspect because I think that is an outmoded way of thinking.
  • Include a top-level Radio option. No I don't mean satellite radio, or an FM receiver in the Apple TV. I mean There should be Internet Radio stations to listen to directly on the Apple TV.

Clearly Apple has a lot to do here, at least according to my view. This is not to say that the Apple TV isn't good at what it does, it is, but it could be a whole lot better.