Monday, October 27, 2008

Apple's New Notebooks

I know it's been a while, which is why I'm reporting on Apple's event, an event that happened nearly two weeks ago. There wasn't a whole lot of exciting news this week though, or last week, so I thought I'd talk about it some.

The MacBook Refresh

It's funny listening to podcasts after Apple's events to hear a consensus on an incorrect prediction. Apple announced a few new laptops (get all the details here), but not at the $800 price point people were speculating. Also weird, in my opinion, is that none of them support HDMI output yet (though you can get a converter to HDMI for what they do support, DVI) or Blu-ray (which is more of a licensing issue). You'd think that with dismal sales projections that Sony would be begging computer manufacturers to support it. Anyway, the new MacBooks are pretty slick:

The $1600 model has 2 GB of RAM (on a 1066 MHz FSB, but no idea what you'd do with one that fast), a 250 GB hard drive, a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo processor with a 3 MB L2 cache, a backlit keyboard, a 13.3" screen, and an nVidia GeForce 9400M. Yeah, it's real beefy. The $1300 model processor has 400 less MHz and its hard drive is 160 GB. Also nice is the aluminum body and glass, multi-touch trackpad (so you can do iPhone-like stuff on your computer). The MacBook really starts at $1000 though (slightly slower processor, half the RAM, and a 120 GB hard drive), but only comes in white. There are pricier Pro models though: $2000 will get you a 15.4" screen with the same specs as the $1600 one and $2400 will you a slightly faster processor, a 320 GB hard drive, and double the RAM. If you need a larger monitor though, $2800 will get you 17" and a marginally faster processor (and will cause your friends to question the size of your junk, most likely - I'm sorry, but it's true). Oh, and these all have superdives inside to play CDs and DVDs, iSights, mini display ports (supports DVI), 5 hour battery life, ExpressCard slots, digital input, firewire ports, ethernet ports, and Bluetooth. But wait, there's more! They're releasing a new Air in November with the same nVidia card, 2GB of RAM, and gorgeous screen, but a 120 GB hard drive instead and a 1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo with a SIX freaking MB L2 cache. As you would expect, all models are thinner than before, but I don't think anyone was bothered by their current thickness. They also have an upgrade on their supernaturally beautiful 24" CinemaDisplay monitors, which has a MagSafe power port (for your laptop), a USB port, and (of course) a dispaly port for $900 (that's more than the computer I'm writing this on costs).

He ended the presentation bragging about why Macs are doing well and razzing Microsoft, as always, but I thought that it was a strong lineup. They machines are cooler than I had predicted a couple of weeks ago, and I wouldn't say that they're really exciting but I do think they're well-built, well-designed, high-end computers. They're still a little over-priced, but I can't argue with the quality of this hardware. I think everyone was a little disappointed that they're not coping with the economy by releasing a netbook or even a $900 laptop. Can college students really afford these things? They're definitely targeting students with their marketing, but they're still not cheap. Why not drop the price on the current MacBook Air and keep it out there? Or heck, drop their MacBook Pro to be a cheap MacBook. Are they just trying to keep their image as a high-end computer manufacturer?

Samsung's Air Competitor

I love my Samsung TV, so I had to be a little excited by their entry into the ultra portable laptop market with the X360. It looks beautiful, it has an antibacterial keyboard (we've all seen how dirty our keyboards get), 10 freaking hours of battery life, it supports Bluetooth and Gigabit LAN, it has a great selection of ports (including HDMI and 3 USB and memory card), and the display is incredible. I really want one of these, and at $800 it's really not a bad deal. Now we just have to wait for it to actually be released! I think this may be one of Samsung's first laptops because I haven't heard of them being in the market before, but please correct me if I'm wrong.

Joost's Grand Re-opening

I talked about Joost when it launches as I got into the public beta rather early, and while I had high hopes for it I was ultimately disappointed by its heavy software and un-intuitive interface, though the video quality was superb. Well, one of those things changed: all its content is now available straight from your web browser. The interface for browsing the site still is not as good as Hulu, and its content selection could use some help, but it has a pretty decent number of movies (including The Fifth Element) and it's still snappy, which is impressive considering the video quality. I hope its content base grows bigger, and I wouldn't be dissatisfied if it just showed a large number of ad-supported movies and left television to Hulu.

Speaking of Hulu though, they've been showing the season premiere of 30 Rock a week in advance of its actual premiere on network television. I thought that was really awesome and bodes well for old media adapting to new media, in my opinion.

Firefox 3.1 Beta 1 is Out

The Mozilla Foundation released Beta 1 of Firefox 3.1, and it looks to have some nice improvements. At the top of the improvement list is the TraceMonkey Javascript engine, which makes it easier for it to process Javascript-laden websites (which is pretty common in this post Web 2.0 era). It also has improved tab switching behavior and a visual tab switcher with graphical thumbnails, which I'm guessing is an upgrade from what's at the far right in the tabs row. I'm really looking forward to the smart session restore though, which allows you to micro-manage what it will restore better on boot-up or after a crash. For being a 0.1 version change, I think it has some pretty solid improvements - possibly the best of any 0.1 version change they've previously released. I can't wait till its ready for prime time!

Closing Notes

It's past my bedtime and I'm on call this week so it would be wise for me to get my rest. Here's just a few final items real quick:

Oprah has endorsed the Kindle! My confidence was never low for our performance in Q4, but with Oprah's army turned on to the Kindle
I feel even better about it. Maybe Amazon will have a section for Oprah's book club? That's not insider information, I have no idea what the Kindle team is working on (I don't think they're even in Seattle).

CNet has a sobering list of tech layoffs if you want to see how this economy has affected techies. It's not pretty, but it could be much worse so I think we should definitely be thankful that we still have work out there and many of us still have our jobs.

The Android platform is now fully open source! I think that's pretty cool, and literally the exact opposite of Apple's stance with the iPhone, it seems.

Lastly, Gizmodo has a list of gadgets that give infinite pleasure (get your mind out of the gutter, not that kind of pleasure), and it's just really fascinating. I could totally get into the one of bubble wrap that you can just keep popping forever.

Have a great week everyone, and pray that I survive my first week of on call!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Texas is #1

I really didn't have a better title for this post. Heck, even if I did, it probably wouldn't have mattered.

Texas Beat OU

I don't usually talk football, but this game warrants a very brief aside. #5 Texas beat #1 OU on Saturday, 45-35. It was the best football game I've seen since Texas beat USC in the Rose Bowl. There's no doubt that I hate OU, but they played an excellent game. I have to give props to them for preparing as well as they did. they were coming at us with the best shots to our offense, but we had some tricks up our sleeves and got the job done. Texas has always been an underdog. No matter how good we are, no sports commentators want to believe. It's really nice for UT to get national recognition as the #1 team in the country. I just hope that it doesn't go to the team's heads because we have a grueling season ahead of us, and Mizzou is coming out of a heartbreaking loss so they won't want to lose 2 weeks in a row. You know it was a crazy weekend though when 3 of the top 5 teams lose.

The Dark Knight Pre-order Rush

I can't believe that I'm actually dedicating a whole section to this, but I did so much digging around about it that I feel like I'm cheating myself to not deliver my findings. I got an e-mail yesterday morning from Amazon that The Dark Knight was available for pre-order The Dark Knight and on Blu-ray right now, and it'll be released on December 9. It's already #1 on Amazon in Movies and TV Shows, which is no small feat for a movie months before it comes out. The DVD is only a couple of bucks cheaper than the Blu-ray edition so it's a pretty easy choice for Blu-ray player owners. I think that both editions have a similar arsenal of features including a couple of History Channel features, a digital copy of the movie for your computer and/or portable media device(s), and episodes of a Gotham City news program. Some of the features are actually in HD for the Blu-ray disc, so that's pretty neat. I'm hoping for special Blu-ray extras, supposedly it's a BD Live disc. What does that mean? Well I looked into it and apparently it means that it can download special content from the Internet and possibly interact with other people watching the movies, what they're going to specifically do for this movie is unclear. Also interesting is that the aspect ratio is going to be a shifted IMAX ratio for the Blu-ray release, which apparently used to make things look more epic. Hopefully we'll see the difference for the better in November! Until then, we have to just enjoy the cover art. I'm super excited for this release and already have my pre-order in!

Obama and McCain on Net Neutrality

Popular Mechanics has a great thorough look at net neutrality and how the two presidential candidates feel about it. It's more of just a great low-level explanation of what the issue is all about since neither candidate is willing to talk about the issue much at length right now, but I implore you to take this issue under consideration when you vote.

On Open-sourcing Skype

Linux Journal thinks that Skype should be open sourced, and I read their article and thought about it some but I just can't get behind that. Besides that, there's no way that they'd do it. Skype's codebase has been heavily obfuscated as it is and it is as such as a security. To be clear: this is the worst method of security for software. There have been research papers written in which they try to figure out what's going on beneath the covers, but only so much has been known. We know that it always encrypts data, but it also doesn't control user registration, trusts anyone else who speaks its protocol, has a weak privacy policy, and we have no idea what vulnerabilities really exist because of the code obfuscation. Of course, once someone figure it out then it could be very dangerous. Heck, they could even be listening in on your calls.

Anyway, with these kinds of practices in place, I think it's pretty clear that they wouldn't entertain the idea of open sourcing what they have. Here's what I'd prefer: an open source alternative built from the ground up with the right principles in mind and without any details hidden behind stone walls. What I'd prefer from Skype is a premium VoIP service with better customer service, superior call quality, and clearer security ideas in place. What I'd want from the community is a simple, totally free, service that draws on wisdom from the crowd and grows to be without restrictions despite foreign governments and without the threat of someone watching over what you do - it has to be transparent.

We'll see what happens, I imagine that this is a decently big priority for the open source development community.

Quick Notes

Apple is having a press event on Tuesday to talk about a refresh on their line of laptops. I don't foresee anything spectacular, just them keeping up with the current market.

MakeUseOf has a post of 5 Gmail Labs things that you probably haven't heard of but are super nifty, like signature tweaks or a way to keep you from sending drunk e-mails. No solution to getting locked out of your e-mail due to security measures.

If I had more time, I would've talked about this list of common online blunders that make your online interactions insecure. Clicking on pop-up ads that are misleading is more common than you think.

I don't think that I'll be able to post next Sunday, but I'll try to post later in the week, like maybe Wednesday or Thursday. I have a long week of work ahead of me, but I'm looking forward to the weekend. I hope you all have a great week!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The LittleBigPlanet Beta


Like every week, there was a lot going on last week. In my week though the biggest thing to happen was that I got a beta code for LittleBigPlanet (LBP), and I was ecstatic (I still am, actually). It was so difficult to get a code though that I felt like I had to punch a 12 year-old in the face to get one, but I got it fair and square. I'm sure that their distribution of these codes made perfect sense in theory, but it was terrible. They gave codes to various online video game magazines and LBP fan sites with the number of codes given in proportion to the site's overall popularity and/or importance. So it ended up being a mad rush for those sites (most contests were first come first serve) that crashed GamePro and the LBP news blog entirely, among others - a true life denial of service scenario. Ideally, they should've just distributed the codes themselves and/or given them to those who pre-ordered, but fortunately the LBP news blog later just gave them out to whoever tried to get them in their giveaway.

In case you don't know, you get to control Sackboy in the game. That's this guy:

Save the Sackgirl, Save the World

He doesn't generally look that scary though, he's actually super cute. I wish I had screenshots and videos to show you, but It's just been hard for me to get anything that would do the game justice and between showing you crappy videos and not showing you anything at all, I prefer the latter. I'll leave the videos to Mm, but G4 did a great special as well. It's a platformer at its core and the basis of the game is that it kind of exists in our dreams and imaginations. Games have evolved so much into these full cinematic experiences that have deep stories (or attempt to have them), high budget graphics, and very advanced control schemes. What I love about LBP is that it aims for simplicity, a high sense of art direction, and just having fun. It reminds me of games from back in the day when the story didn't matter, it was all about the experience of the gameplay (not that I hate storylines, simplicity is just appealing). All you need to know is that you are a burlap sack person, which is really a blank canvas for you to customize into whatever you want: a bunny (my Sackboy right now), a pirate, an astronaut, a Victorian lord, etc. It's all about giving the user the ability to customize nearly everything with extreme ease and trying to put you in this fantastical world that's often all about just being happy. And this is just the beta, it's not even the full game yet. It's not really very stressful, either.

The beta only includes 3 levels (which kind of double as tutorials), what appears to be a full-featured level creator, and the ability to play the levels others have submitted online (you can submit yours as well, of course, which will be available at launch) on your own or co-operatively (on your PS3 or with others online). It looks like it only outputs in 720p (it's under 1 GB, so that's not too shabby, actually), but it looks in-freaking-credible. On my Samsung Series 7, I can be extremely discerning of video/sound quality and I was completely blown away. I sometimes sit closer just so that I can fully appreciate the level of detail they put into the graphics. The graphics may not be as big budget as Metal Gear Solid 4, but they impress me just as much and I find them more inspired than Devil May Cry 4, which arguably does technically have a better graphical engine. I don't see any artifacts or jaggies or anything like that. It's visually flawless, especially the ridiculous lighting engine. When you see a golf ball, it looks like a a golf ball, and when you put a sticker on it it looks as if it was printed on the ball like a logo - that's how fine tuned it is.

Ok, moving on to more important things: the controls. It's extremely simple: left stick to move around, x to jump, and R1 to grab. Yeah, that's it. Cool, huh? Now they have sensitivity adjustments, but that's essentially it. I keep citing how I played Dead Space at PAX and was really turned off by how many freaking buttons it required, so I love this. There are other fun things though: holding the back shoulder buttons give you control of your Sack person's arms, moving your controller around lets you control their head or torso, and the D-pad buttons let you control their emotions (happy, sad, scared, or angry). Oh, and square brings up your popit menu to use stickers (which can be stuck on anything, even you, and have no limit to their use) and customize your character and kill yourself (to go to the last checkpoint). It's used extensively in the level editor, too. The few levels that were available were definitely fun to play, but not very difficult since they're the very first levels in the real game. The art style was a joy to take in though and I loved the incentives of finding stickers and costume items and bonus levels - it's what keeps the game engaging since it doesn't seem to have an over arching cohesive storyline, though I believe that there are mini-stories throughout the game. Nerds love to collect stuff, but I think people do in general, as well. There was also a cute mini game where I had to jump over a king's tie as it spun around to collect points.

The level editor is nothing short of incredible. People are going to love this thing. I have to admit that it can be a bit daunting after you see the levels that other people have created since they're often quite clever, but they have some great, simple tutorials to get you familiar with the tools, and the fact that you can hover around makes it so much easier to create levels. It feels pretty much as intuitive as they could've made an editor with so many options. I feel like you can create anything you can imagine whether it be spaceship or a dinosaur or a horse or the theme to FFX (totally badass) or a conveyor belt or whatever you want. It really is a lot more expansive than I had ever imagined, and it gives you a lot of options to not only make it functionally extensive but as visually appealing as you want. I definitely underestimated it. You can even control the sounds that things make as they're destroyed, it's just really fun. The tutorials can sometimes be slow, but I actually really love their voiceover guy so it's not so bad. I still can't wrap my head around how perfect the physics engine is: it adds real physics to everything you create, and it's just as you would expect these things to function in this fantasy world. I would've loved a mode where you create levels based on challenges to get better acquainted with the editor, like a level editor mini-game I guess, but it's not anything sorely missed.

There are a few problems with the game, but they're pretty minor. I've experienced serious lag, but this is still a beta and I haven't played online co-operatively a whole lot for a few days so it may have gotten better. I sometimes end up jerking around my analog stick a lot in user-created levels because of slick surfaces, but I think that just means I suck at those levels. ;) I do see some collision detection issues and other weird issues in the tutorials, but they haven't been very often. I'm more worried about how finding levels is going to work after release: there are already so many levels and many where it's peoples first levels that really suck. There's nothing wrong with your first level sucking, but why put it online if it's not a polished product? Why not keep working on it? I wish there was a better way of navigating all the levels other than just the search box and tags, or flipping through pages of worlds, but it's not a problem that easily fixable. I've played some levels though where I was just blown away and it really did inspire me to want to create my own levels to try and match their brilliance. By the way, you can give away prizes in your levels that you create, like stickers or level editor parts, so the ability to play a bunch of levels and then use their created parts to add to your level editing toolkit gives the level editor even more possibilities. It's like the concept of code re-use in programming - you literally don't have to re-invent the wheel.

In conclusion, this is going to be a must-have game for the PS3. I don't see how you can go wrong with this game, I feel like it appeals to casual and hardcore gamers and that it has unlimited playability alone or with friends. It's one of the best, most polished games I've ever played, and this is only the beta. It follows a very important mantra in this industry: easy to get into, hard to master. Every truly great game is great because it's easy to learn but hard to be the best at, and with the level editor that truly means something for LBP. I recommend pre-ordering it if you have a PS3 - there are a couple of exclusive costumes out the first week (astronaut and an LBP shirt) that you can only get the first week, by the way.

The Ongoing Saga of Music Industry Stupidity

There were threats early last week that the Copyright Royalty Board would raise the royalty rates on digital music to nearly double (9 cents to 15 cents) for the artists, which would likely come out of the pockets of the proprietors of these digital music services since studios are so stingy, so iTunes threatened to shut down. I don't know if it was an empty threat or not, but it would definitely operate at a loss for Apple given their already razor thin profit margins. The Board did not end up increasing the rate, though they did set a rate for ringtones (at 24 cents). I wanted to bring this up because I'm kind of surprised that the government has this kind of power. Even though I think they ended up ruling for the best, it flies in the face of a free market, in my opinion. Even more disturbing is the prospect that music studios will do whatever it takes to bring up their short term profits, even if it means long term losses in grounds like digital distribution and Internet radio.

Speaking of the latter, Pandora also spoke out early last week begging fans of the service to write in to their Congressmen so that they wouldn't pass the ridiculous bill that would raise royalty rates for Internet radio to a stupid rate that no existing Internet radio service can possibly afford to pay now or in the forseeable future if they expect to stay in future. Terrestrial radio do not pay royalty fees right now since their playing the music already promotes it to an equal effect, but that's also been discussed in the past. Fortunately, Congress decided to extend the period of time for royalty negotiations with SoundExchange for Internet broadcasters to February 2009, but this doesn't guarantee anything.

It makes me so mad that this is an industry that is clearly in trouble and just pissing all over itself in trying to fix its problems by creating more of them. Pandora and and others are better than terrestrial radio since they're often easier to listen to at work, they're more likely to get you listening to other artists that you'll actually like, and they make it painfully convenient to buy music. What the Hell do these music studios want?! The RIAA already has a black eye from their case against Jammie Thomas. I don't know how a group of executives get together in a board room and decide that they way to save their asses is to shut down the companies that have been breathing new life into their sales. I predict very bad things for music sales if there end up being royalty hikes, so continue to support Pandora and cross your fingers - they seem to be the front runners of this battle.

The G1 is Getting Closer

There's a lot of mixed opinions about the G1 among people in the know. For me, I'm not convinced that it'll be an amazing device, but I'm excited that Android can't be vaporware at this point and can only get bigger and better, even if the device it starts out on isn't likely to be a blockbuster. Motorola is already interested in Android. By the way: the naysayers harping on the lack of Exchange support seem to be forgetting the iPhone's release last summer - things didn't turn out too shabby for Apple. Gizmodo has a very positive spin on the situation in case you've fallen victim to a lot of the bad press. That article is mostly an exploration of what the success of this truly open mobile platform can mean (I know, you can't do tethering and a few other things, but these are minor details compared to the restrictions of other mobile platforms, including the iPhone's). It's going to pump more innovation in the smartphone market, and that's really important. Apple shouldn't get too comfortable - no one should. They should all be constantly innovating, and I hope that the G1, as lacking as it may be in certain areas, will help provide a boost. Just remember that it's not an iPhone replacement, it's something else altogether. If you really want a touch screen comparison though, Tech Radar compares the G1 to the iPhone and the Nokia Tube, but it's a bit long.

Back to the iPhone real quick: Apple has decided to drop its Non-disclosure Agreement (NDA) for released applications, but this doesn't seem to be as exciting to me as it does to everyone else. I am pleased by it and it's a step in the right direction, but the fact that when you're developing an iPhone application that your lips have to stay sealed just doesn't make sense to me. Now that the SDK is out in the open, why seal any lips about it? Why not encourage further collaboration even among unreleased applications? At least this will allow the publication of books. I'll close this section with good news for Apple: Mac market share has grown to 8.2%, which has shrunk Microsoft's share to 90.3%. Bravo, Apple: you've really squeezed a lot out of this run of MacBooks and iMacs and MacBook Pros.

Quick Notes

I'm really tired, so it's time to wrap things up with a quick list of the other items I flagged but just don't have time to discuss in depth.

CNet has an article about net neutrality claiming that the solution to the ISPs' proclaimed problem of infrastructure costs of Internet connectivity is to charge consumers for tiers rather than having content providers foot the bill. I've said this before and I'll say it again: the ISPs are hoarding their money and could've easily upgraded their networks had they invested properly all these years. Tiering the Internet is dumb and people around the world who have to deal with it are not happy with it (anecdotal evidence, I have nothing to cite on that).

YouTube bumped its video upload limit to 1 GB, which is much better than 100 MB, especially with many point-and-shoot cameras' level of craptacular compression.

Did you know that Gmail has an activity monitor at the bottom? Check it out, it's super nifty.

PC World has a fun roundup of the 10 most mysterious cyber crimes.

Computer World has an even better roundup of famous tech myths. My perpetual favorite is Al Gore inventing the Internets.

And to wrap things up back to the start of this post: get some creative inspiration from these bus stop ads.

Whew, that was a long one! It'll probably be shorter next time. Have a great week, everyone!