Archive for March, 2006

The Nintendo Revolution

March 30, 2006

Revolution controller
This Revolution will be televised. And remote controlled.

What, no smart pun in the title? Nope, it’s been done to death. But I couldn’t resist doing one in the caption. Sorry.

The “console wars” have begun (do they ever stop?), the Xbox360 has hit the markets all over the world (even in Australia), and hopefully both the PlayStation3 and the Nintendo Revolution will arrive before the end of this year.

Earlier, I’ve mentioned that I’m enthusiastic about the possibilities for SingStar on the PlayStation 3. However, when it comes to consoles, I’m firmly in the Nintendo camp. That’s quite natural considering I grew up with the 8-bit NES and the 16-bit SNES. They lost me when they moved to 3D with the Nintendo 64, but they are still my favourite gaming company. Games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, StarWing, Super Mario Kart and Pilotwings ensure that it’s probably going to stay that way.

The past two console generations have seen other companies take the lead, however. First Sony usurped Nintendo’s N64 with the first PlayStation; then Sony and Microsoft became the major players with their PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles in the previous generation, although Nintendo isn’t that far behind Microsoft.

For some time now, it’s been clear that Nintendo’s not interested in competing on Sony’s and Microsoft’s terms. Those terms can be summed up thus: “Make it faster, cooler, make games that are more complex with higher production values.” This results in consoles filled with expensive hardware and games that require tons of resources to create (high-quality graphics require high-quality artwork, for instance). This is pretty much what PC gaming has been about all along – and now and then something innovative happens. My favourite example is the gameplay of Battlefield 1942 and commander/squad roles of Battlefield 2.

Marketing photo of the Nintendo Revolution
The Nintendo Revolution

With their next console, Nintendo’s taking a different approach. Rather than pouring resources into basic hardware development to try and make a more powerful console megahertz-wise, they’ve focused on the input device – the joypad. Except it’s no joypad anymore, it looks like a remote control. The “Revolution controller” as it’s often called is a pointing device that’s also able to sense its own orientation – in other words, it knows where you’re aiming it and it knows which way it’s angled. It’s something that’s hard to explain, but the concept is easy to grasp if you see it – and reputedly also feels a lot more natural to use than you might think. Check out a concept video here (Google Video).

A totally new way to play, really novel, and all we have is a concept video, and you’re not convinced it’s anything more than a fancy gimmick? Well, this thread (Nintendo forums) gives a nice overview of what people think about it – including people who’ve actually tried it. There are quite a few smart people there, and most are very positive.

There are a few really obvious applications for such a controller. First-person shooters will have a control that lets you aim and fire in a natural fashion. The same is true for shoot’em ups. And then there’s all the stuff I can’t think of, of which some is displayed in the video on Google. I’m very excited about this, but there’s even more that tickles me about the Revolution.

Nintendo is planning to publish its entire back catalogue of games for it and make them downloadable. You’ll have to pay for them, but if this feature is priced right, it could take off. Even Duck Hunt sounds great if I can use a wireless controller to fire. Imagine playing Duck Hunt with a friend or three, furiously blasting away at the screen whenever a bird rises from the forest. (I happen to have a projector, which makes this even more exciting.) There’s a ton of old games I can’t wait to play again.

This fun is going to be relatively cheap. Nintendo has focused on the controller, and the hardware in the box itself will be pretty weak by Xbox360 standards (IGN). To be specific, IGN is talking about a 729 mhz processor and 88 megabytes of system memory. My guess is that this means it will be somewhat more powerful than the original Xbox, but it will have nowhere near the horsepower of the 360 or PlayStation 3. Part of the justification for the slow hardware is that Nintendo isn’t supporting computationally demanding high-definition TV output. Nintendo states that they want to focus on innovative gameplay that’s accessible to all – not just more advanced graphics. For people like me, this means that I don’t have to invest in a HDTV projector to get all the value out of my Revolution. And of course, the projected low cost of the console (149 – 199$ compared to 299-399$ for the XBox and 399$++ for the PlayStation 3) means that buying one will be something I will do without a second thought.

Wow, this is going to be great. I can see myself playing A Link to the Past on my projector with the wireless controller and enjoying games that require fast reflexes and vigorous pointing action. There are just two concerns: Will it make it to Europe this year? And can I possibly talk Nintendo into creating a SingStar clone?!

PS: There’s another advantage of the comparatively weak hardware. It’ll be small, sleek and probably slient.

References:
Wikipedia: Nintendo GameCube
Nintendo Revolution unconfirmed hardware details on IGN
Nintendo president vows cheap games on CNN/Money
Forum thread at Nintendo forums giving an overview of opinions on and support for the Nintendo Revolution controller
Nintendo Revolution trailer at Google Video
Nintedo’s Revolution web site
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in GameSpot’s Greatest games of all time feature

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SingStar on the PlayStation 3 “speculations”

March 24, 2006

Yesterday, GameSpy mentioned a video displayed at GDC showing a Sony "vision" of the video gaming future:

Finally, we were treated to a view of what the future might look like, as players instantly download music to the PS3 version of SingStar (Sony's karaoke game), sharing videos and photos with their friends across the world.

That's exactly what I've been hoping to hear. One of the biggest complaints against the SingStar series of games is that they never include the song you want to sing from a particular artist – they always include that other song you never really cared that much for.

Imagine having friends over and being able to purchase and download songs immediately, choosing from a selection of hundreds of songs. I can't wait. Also, the PS3's fast hardware should mean that the annoying waits in SingStar (while the game loads data and when it stores information to the memory card) will be eradicated.

Also – hook up the EyeToy camera and broadcast the entire "show" to your friends somewhere else in the world. What a way to spread the fun. Ouch, that almost sounds like an advertisement punch-line.

Of course, no SingStar for the PS3 has been announced yet, but it's just one of those things that will happen for sure – just imagine the nice revenue stream Sony can create from all the players constantly buying new songs. Sony, I'm looking forward to it! (That is, if I can afford a PlayStation 3 to begin with…)

Sony Ericsson W800i – brief review, six months on

March 23, 2006

Thanks to WordPress’ stats tracking system, I’ve noticed that most people accidentally coming in here are looking for information on the W800i “Walkman phone”. Since I’ve had this phone for about six months now, I thought it could be useful for some of those still on the fence to get a honest evaluation of the phone from someone who’s used it very actively for a while.

In this “postview” I’ll focus on the downsides of the W800i, mention some of my favourite features, and try to compare it to upcoming phones from Sony Ericsson and Nokia. Read on!

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Sony Ericsson’s lousy Update Service software

March 21, 2006

Note to new readers: This post is from March 2006, when I was using a SE W800i phone. Today I am using a Nokia N82, and I haven’t used my W800i for about a year. A lot might have happened with the SE Update Service software since then – keep that in mind when reading about my experience with the software. However, with that said, comments indicate people still have issues with the Update Service similar to those I had back in 2006. – Are, 19.01.2008

A few days ago, I decided to go ahead and update the firmware of my Sony Ericsson W800i mobile phone. I had an old version – L1R002 – dated August 2005. From past experience, I know that updating firmware – that is, changing the program code running the operating system of the phone – can be risky. If something goes wrong during the update process, you could be left with a non-functional device, which must be repaired at a service workshop. Thus, I approached this procedure with caution.

However, seeing that Sony Ericsson had launched a new version of their phone software update program – Update Service II – reassured me a little bit. Mature software is usually better than immature software. I’ll quote from their UK Update Service page:

No user data will be lost, and you will be guided smoothly through the update process.

Judging by this, there shouldn’t be any problems, right? Especially not for a computer-literate consumer. Well…
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Windows XP on the Intel Mac

March 17, 2006

Finally, someone did it – made Windows XP work on the Mac models with Intel processors. I’ve been waiting and hoping for this for some time now.

I doubt there are many laptop users with Windows machines that would not prefer the Apple designs if the design was the only difference. Unfortunately, there’s the whole Windows ecosystem to consider. Things used to be worse – these days Opera, Thunderbird, Skype, OpenOffice; more or less all the stuff you need to survive in the desktop environment is available in some form for Apple’s OSX.

However, I use my laptop for gaming (just occasionally these days, since I recently purchased a dedicated gaming PC), and spending a ton of money on a machine with a fairly powerful graphics processor that’s unable to run 90% of the world’s games is just not happening. Also, from my experience with Mac OSX, I know that there are parts of Windows I prefer – for instance (and this could be just because I’m used to XP, obviously) I find it really tough to navigate OSX using only the keyboard.

Forcing the user to navigate with the mouse is evil. I’ve run into a few dialogue boxes in OSX where I’ve been unable to use keys to select one of the options. When you can click “Yes”, “No” or “Cancel”, you should be able to navigate the buttons with the arroy keys or make a selection by pressing “Y”, “N” or “C”. That didn’t work. Of course, there’s probably some fancy Apple twist to this functionality – like having to press Apple+O instead of just Return to open something in the Finder – but whatever it is, it’s not intuitive.

Anyways – although there is a lot of work remaining (3D graphics support under WinXP is not working apparently) it just became a lot more likely that my next laptop will be an Apple machine. It’s going to be really exciting to see what kind of specifications and price point the Intel-based iBook will get when it’s launched.

Multi-platform gaming with Q3, a DivX download creating a DVD sale and mind games

March 12, 2006

Yeah! Nothing’s like a good old late-night gaming session. Buddy Tor is in town, and he brought along his iBook and a copy of Quake 3 for the PowerPC platform. Surprisingly, getting Q3 ver 1.32 up and running on our Wintel computers and joining a game hosted by the Mac proved 100% effortless. I know I should not be this surprised, but I am anyway.

We were fragging away in no time, also thanks to Q3s very user friendly install procedure – copy the game from A to B and run it. Yeah! That’s the way it should be. I rocked playing against Anders and Tor on Q3DM17 – good old The Longest Yard. Me and my sturdy railgun!

Had a nice evening in other regards too, we had a lot of SingStar fun – although I am frustrated by the fact that exactly what scores information is saved where is a very foggy business. Also, SingStar 80’s seems to be the only disc to actually support profiles, and you can’t play a 4-player game using profiles and the rules from 80’s using the tracks from the other discs. You can do duets, but not 2-8 player party games. How annoying!

Big thanks to Tor and Anders for buns (I did a small part) and Lovise for the cake. Yum! And Lene for coming and bringing the usual complement of chocolate. And everyone else for being here! Holy maloney, I’ve had so much candy I feel quite… unstable. Time for bed, I think.

And, yes, we watched Serenity, the movie. And yesterday, I ordered Firefly, the series preceding the movie. That’s one example of ‘illegal file sharing’ helping the TV/movie industry sell DVDs – my first and only exposure to Firefly (the series) was through DivXs downloaded off the net.

It is incredibly ironic that in court, the downloads made in such a case would probably be converted to dollars and considered a monetary loss by the MPAA – when in fact they generated a sale, without causing the creators any financial loss whatsoever. It just makes me shake my head.

Oh, and we visited the Norwegian Museum of Technology – or Norsk Teknisk Museum, if you like. Unfortunately, we arrived rather late, so we had just two hours to spend there, which proved to be too little time. We did get to try out a “brain wave game”, though. The objective is to push a magnetically controlled orb towards your opponent by focusing on something, thereby altering your brain activity. Being calm and focused gives you low readings (good), being excited gives you high readings (bad). The readings are gathered by a headband with some metal contact points that touch your forehead.

You and the other player are seated at opposite sides of a table, there’s a long recessed field of metal where the orb moves back and forth according to the read values and a monitor showing the brain activity on the middle of the table.

The game definitely does read your brain activity. After trying once versus Anders, I played against Tor. He beat me easily the first time. The second time, I really concentrated and put everything but the orb out of my mind. I even repeated the word “orb” constantly in my head. The result: The orb crept steadily towards him and I won quite easily.

The second time around I wanted to see if this was just coincidence. An easy way to find out was to concentrate, then abruptly switch over to Singstar-mode, meaning trying to sing “I believe in a thing called love” and generally achieving a high level of excitement. That shouldn’t be very compatible with the “calm and focused” objective – and indeed, the brain activity readings spiked immediately and I was losing the game fast. However, I was able to switch back into focused mode pretty much at will, and I eventually won the game.

One word: Cool.

That’s it for today, sorry for the very long headline and winding text. It’s incredible how much you wind up typing when you eventually get down to it. Good morning!

Intel’s Robson caching technology

March 9, 2006

A few months back (give or take), word arrived that Intel were working on flash memory-based caching technology for laptop computers codenamed “Robson”. Yesterday, Anandtech reported more on this NAND-based caching technology from the Intel Developer Forum.

The basic idea here is to store oft-used files in flash memory, which is a lot faster to access than a hard drive. NAND flash memory retains the data written to it even when it is not supplied with power. (Apple’s iPod Nano uses this type of memory to store the music files.)

Thus, NAND combines the speed of normal working memory (RAM, whose contents is lost when the power is removed – everyone who’s ever been exposed to a power outage knows this…) with the persistence of a hard drive. Obviously, there are reasons why we’re not all using flash memory instead of harddrives – cost and storage limitations.

Apple’s iPod Nanos are available with up to 4 GB of memory. If you want more, you’ll have to get the 20 GB disk based model. That gives a fair indication of what’s available at a reasonable cost right now. Noone can get by with 4, 8 or even 16 gigabytes of storage these days (even if you could afford it), meaning flash memory is not currently a viable solution the primary storage needs of the average laptop user (I’m talking about me now, not your mom. The thought that she could probably get by with 8 gig without any problems unless someone shared their DivX movies with her is an interesting topic in itself).

Flash technology development chart from Samsung

However, the fact that the iPod is retailing for 149$ with 1 GB of NAND flash (or 249$ for 4 GB) means that it could be possible to put this in a computer without increasing its cost all that much. The computer Intel showed off at the IDF used only 0,25 GB of flash memory, still it booted Windows in half the time compared to the laptop without Robson and was faster overall. That sounds like a bargain to me.

Of course, the specific improvements you get will be determined by what exactly this flash memory is used to store. Files often used by the OS is a winner. Personally, I would like to have 2 GB of this – then I could have the entire page file and most of the OS in flash memory instead of on disk.

Ironically, my Aopen 1557GLS laptop is unstable when used with Windows’ Standby mode. Standby means that you tell the computer to go to sleep, and it just shuts down, but the working memory (RAM, if you like) is supplied with power. This isn’t flash memory, so if the power disappears, so does your data, meaning that you wouldn’t want to accidentally put your computer in standby when on batteries and then forget to hook it up to a power source. The main advantage is that you can shut the PC down and resume your work where you left off in a matter of seconds.

Unfortunately, 1/3 of the time, my laptop just doesn’t wake up, so Standby is basically useless to me. This is to all laptop makers reading this: If you’re planning to implement Robson, please make it stable too. My workaround to the Standby problem is to use Hibernate – this feature writes the contents of memory to disk and reads it back in when you resume. Though slower than standby, It’s a lot faster than booting from scratch and you don’t lose anything if your battery runs out, but, obviously, this still annoys me quite a lot.

Right, lets get back on track- I hope that my next laptop both implements a working Standby and allows me to Hibernate to flash memory if I want to. Did I mention that the reduction in hard drive use means lower power consumption? Combine that with a faster boot (and resume, if your Standby isn’t working…) and a speedier computing experience overall, and I can’t see how I can get a laptop without Robson.

The introduction of the first Robson laptops is scheduled for Q1 2007, which is also when I’ll start to look around for a new laptop. Sweet.

PS: A while back (yeah, I know, I’m not being real specific on dates today) Gigabyte announced their i-RAM. It’s basically a PCI card with memory slots where you can insert standard memory modules of the sort you normally use for working memory (RAM) in your computer. The card has a battery and a S-ATA connector, and lets you use the memory modules as if they were a hard drive. The BIOS and operating system sees a standard S-ATA drive, and that’s that. Exactly what you use it for is up to you, but with room for up to 8 GB of memory, it could be a really fast system disk. The battery means that your “virtual drive” will live for something like 12 hours if you lose power. Putting that much memory into it is hugely expensive of course and not for the masses, but I think the i-RAM is an interesting taste of what might be in store for us if NAND prices continue to drop (and they will!).

The i-RAM from Gigabyte

Sony Ericsson W800i / K750 HPM-70 handsfree update

March 6, 2006

In an earlier post, I mentioned my problems with the handsfree set for the W800i mobile phone. Poor build quality eventually caused its wires to break. Today, I got my replacement, and I have happy news to report:

It appears Sony Ericsson have changed the material used on the cable – it’s a lot softer and the handsfree set as a whole feels a little more solid than the previous version. The cables, especially those used on the earbud part, are still awfully thin. It’ll be interesting to see how well they hold up.

Anyway – people out there with HPM-70 problems should have them swapped for new sets. It’s basically a production defect, and the replacement kit (provided you get the “new” version) feels a lot more reliable.

Empire at War

March 5, 2006

Finally got to try out Empire at War today – Thomas dropped by and we played a couple of campaign games and a skirmish. I think it’s safe to say that EAW is the first truly successful Star Wars strategy game for the PC – developers Petroglyph have really managed to capture a lot of the magic associated with Star Wars. I’ll give you a few examples.

I dropped an invasion force on a Rebel-held planet. After having my stormtroopers duke it out with Rebel soldiers and seeing my AT-AT (properly scaled and well animated) make short work of his puny Rebel tanks, Obi-Wan Kenobi appeared on the field. With his lightsaber, he cut a swathe through my infantry. Fortunately, I had Darth Vader on the battlefield – and as soon as they got close to each other, they were locked in a duel. Our other units could not interfere. Perhaps not that realistic, but very true to Star Wars and extremely cool!

Of course, the fact that good’ol Darth won was a nice bonus.

I’ve also had numerous dramatic escapes into hyperspace after meeting one Mon Calamari cruiser too many. That’s another one of the scenarios you run into that feel very Star Wars. I didn’t take many minutes of playing before I really felt like seeing Episode III again!

The main weaknesses I’ve observed so far have been the fact that space battles tend to get pretty messy. Now, the graphics and effects are good, so messy can easily translate to “epic”. However, it can get too much at times. I’m hoping that this is a training issue and that I’ll feel different when I’ve played the game more (I think so).

The other issue is a bug – even though we are playing with version 1.02, we have experienced strange battle results a few times. Example: In the last seconds of a battle, a spacecraft goes down in flames – yet it is not listed as destroyed in the battle results, and the player doesn’t lose it.

You should really try the demo if you’re into Star Wars or strategy games. This looks to me like one of this Spring’s great strategy games alongside Battle for Middle Earth II from EA.

Today’s link to important stuff: The Guardian asks – Can our way of living really save the planet? After reading through it, nodding all the way, I take comfort in the fact that I do contribute in positive ways. Buying ethical goods is however one part of ethical living I should get better at.

Basic Leisure

March 4, 2006

By playing Battlefield 2, you can earn awards, like “Basic Medic Combat” – you’ll have to kill a certain number of enemies or revive a number of people, etc. Today I feel like I’ve earned the “Basic Leisure” in the game called Life ;)

I managed to squeeze in a trip by train, lectures, working on a school project, eating a nice baguette from the school cantina, buying groceries, making pizza, playing SingStar and World Rally Championship 4 with the guests of Anders’ birthday party, and finally playing Battlefield 2 for 1,5 hours. Not too bad for a Friday!

Thanks to Eivind, I also finally got a look at some footage from Spore – Will Wright’s next game. I’ve read about it before, but seeing it in action was very cool. Will they manage to make a game that open-ended interesting? GameSpy has previewed the title here and you can check out the demonstration from last year’s Game Developer’s Conference at Google Video. There’s another one with Wright from the same conference here. I’ve zoomed through most of these now, and all I can say is “wow”. This will be a game I buy just to reward innovation. Brilliant stuff.