Category Archives: Gadgets

A Gimmicky Peripheral I Can Get Behind

Motion gaming has been and gone, I hope, and it seems like the fad to see us into the next generation has been chosen, and it’s secondary touchscreen inputs. E3 2012 had its fair share of horrors, but I don’t think this is one of them and, oddly, I think Microsoft has the best implementation. The Wii U led the way and the PS3 will shortly gain the ability to use the Vita as a PS3 controller, while Microsoft unveiled a software solution in SmartGlass.

SmartGlass

Some of what SmartGlass will do will depend on what the companion apps support, but assuming it has some kind of 3D capability, it has all the upsides of the other platform holders’ efforts and none of the downsides.

First of all, it works on devices that I and many others already have. I wouldn’t have put it past Microsoft to limit it to Windows Phone or Windows 8 tablets, but putting it on iOS and Android was a masterstroke, meaning pretty much anyone with a penchant for tech already has a piece of SmartGlass-enabled hardware. The Wii U obviously requires a whole new console and the PS3 puts the functionality on an expensive handheld with a questionable future. An iPad or other tablet has a higher cost of entry, true, but they have applications far beyond games and people already own them in huge numbers. I had SmartGlass in the room three years ago without even knowing about it.

The second point applies mainly to Nintendo’s way of doing things. The Wii U GamePad has an increasingly long list of caveats – not least its negative effects on game performance – and isn’t even that technically advanced. It still uses a resistive touch screen, for instance, which was ancient tech when it appeared on the DS back in 2004, while even the cheapest Android tablet will have a multitouch display.

SmartGlass, on the other hand, suffers from none of these. We don’t yet know to what extent it’ll be able to leverage the graphical grunt of its host hardware, but the GPUs in decent tablets aren’t inconsiderable, and if SmartGlass is allowed to use them we could have similar full-fat second-screen functionality to the Wii U. It doesn’t have to be limited to glorified menus, without throttling the main hardware like driving a second screen on Nintendo’s machine seems to do. And my iPad will do this with a ten-hour or more battery life, versus the 3-5 that Nintendo’s official figures present.

Most of all, though, my enthusiasm for the idea of personal gaming screens like this is because it’s another example of how far ahead of its time a certain system was. Never forget.

Digital Board Games

One of the regrettable gaps in my nerdish upbringing is that I never got into board games. By the time I was old enough, Dungeons & Dragons seemed old news and far too much like hard work, and dalliances with Games Workshop productions only lasted as long as it took to spend a couple of weeks’ pocket money on a single figure. My experience with board games beyond Monopoly and Mouse Trap therefore stopped with more accessible options like Hero Quest and Operation Aliens.

Neuroshima Hex

As it seemingly has with so many other media, it was the iPad that’s shaken up board gaming. It doesn’t take long for iOS gamers to get beyond the fool’s hope that [insert favourite PC/console game here] will transfer to touchscreen controls and inevitably get into the gateway drugs like Words With Friends, and from there it’s not a massive leap to the harder stuff. For me it was Neuroshima Hex followed by Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer but Ticket To Ride, Catan and Carcassonne all seem to be notably vicious when it comes to digging those claws in. Those are particularly good conversions that show board games and the iPad to be such perfect bedfellows that I’m desperate for some of the more highly regarded big names to make the transition.

Really, it solves all of the problems, mainly logistical, of modern board games. No like-minded friends? Online play solves that. No time to dedicate a few hours to a game? Asynchronous multiplayer with push notifications renders it a non-issue. No shuffling cards. No missing pieces. No setting up and clearing away afterwards. No possibility for mistakes in tracking stats and damage in complicated battles. Purists may decry the lack of physicality, but I’m perfectly happy with a big touchscreen and several games in something the size of a magazine.

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer

I find myself jealously eyeing up games like the well-regarded Battlestar Galactica tie-in or something different like Arkham Horror, hoping for someone to make the effort to adapt them so that I can get the co-operative experience without having to pay £40 for the box and, you know, find real people to play with. I’ll probably end up murdered in a ditch somewhere if I start inviting randoms round to play.

I’m sure physical gaming has as many purists decrying the proliferation of sub-£5 touchscreen downloadables as video gaming does, but they’re just as wrong. It’s another example of how the digital world is broadening the horizons of once-inaccessible corners of gaming, and it’s a very good thing.

Infinity Blade

If you’re an owner of an iOS device who’s looking for a way to show off your hardware, Infinity Blade is the obvious choice. It looks simply gorgeous, and on the high-res iPhone 4 screen the image quality is astounding, giving many 360 and PS3 games a run for their money. When something as good-looking as Rage HD is being outdone so quickly, it suggests that iOS gaming is really going somewhere.

But at the same time, if you’re of the opinion that gaming on a phone is no substitute for buttons and a D-pad, it could qualify as your Exhibit A as well. It’s limited, largely on rails, consists mostly of the same 20 minutes or so of gameplay repeated infinitely, and the occasional death because you missed the on-screen dodge button isn’t out of the question.

I’m firmly in the former camp on this one, though. But beyond being a technical showpiece it’s a great little action RPG, ideally suited for playing on a phone and being quite unique in its ability to blend Demon’s Souls with Punch-Out. It’s also nice to have a game from Epic that looks so different to what we now expect from Unreal Engine games, and the fact that this was developed by Chair, the team behind the similarly impressive Shadow Complex, suggests great talent in that studio.

Rage HD is somewhat disappointing in that, beautiful as it is, it’s largely a tech demo with some on-rails score-chasing shooting, whereas Unreal Engine 3 has had its iOS tech demo in the awesome Epic Citadel – and didn’t charge for it. Infinity Blade is a big advert for the engine as well, but it’s also a brilliant little game that would still be worth buying had it looked like a PS1 game. Having put hours numbering well into double fingers into this already, I eagerly await the promised updates with new loot, new areas and – YES! – online play.

Apple’s Game Center

It’s become a fixture of any Apple conference involving the iOS devices that there will be some chart explaining how it’s a bigger portable gaming platform than anything from Nintendo or Sony, and more often than not it’s laughed off. Just because a phone and/or MP3 player plays games, that doesn’t make it a games console, after all, no matter how impressive the numbers might be.

With yesterday’s release of iOS 4.1 and with it Game Center, Apple’s made quite a significant move, issuing an admittedly limited but still promising gaming network, and the first on a portable gaming system that comes close to the ubiquity of Xbox Live and PSN. It’s arguably even more so, given that you have an essentially permanent connection through which to manage your friends and achievements – the current PSP and DS hardware wouldn’t be able to equal it in that respect even if they tried.

At this early stage Game Center is pretty bare bones, below even existing third-party attempts like OpenFeint and Plus+ in features and support, but it’s the ubiquity that makes it a big deal. That and the fact that it’s really Apple’s first ever move into the gaming market. Now every one of those 230,000 new iOS devices activated each day has a bona fide gaming network built in, and although not everyone will use them for games, the 120 million iOS devices sold since 2007 shits all over the records of any console ever – going by these figures, only two consoles have ever exceeded that mark, and both of those did it with more than a decade on the market.

Many gamers will, of course, never take it that seriously. Gaming on iOS is a secondary feature, and it’s a secondary feature on a portable, which some stubbornly refuse to give the credit of the ‘real’ consoles no matter what huge franchises turn up on them. I can definitely see that perspective for iPhone games, as many attempts to cram existing games onto the touch controls make early attempts at putting an FPS on the PSP feel like a mouse and keyboard, but it’s still the first go-anywhere system with an always-on Internet connection and a proven digital distribution model – it’s the kind of thing that only a few years ago we’d fantasise about future consoles doing, and it got in by the back door.

Is the iPhone going to kill the 3DS before it even gets to market? No, of course not. It’s going to be a serious player, though; I’m sure of it. It’s already everywhere, it’s been shown to be a graphical powerhouse, and games are dirt cheap. You won’t see its impact in the charts, which makes it something of an oddity, but expect impressive graphs when Steve Jobs steps out on stage in January.

The iPhone 4 Reception Issue

I queued up early in the morning of its release to get my iPhone 4 on day one – the first time I’ve done that for anything. Let that be a measure of how much I wanted this phone, the proper successor to the iPhone 3G that’s become an extension of me over the last two years. I’m an Apple fan in general, typing this on my faithful old MacBook Pro that will probably be replaced with a newer model of the same thing later this year, but I’m not big enough of a fan to drink the Kool-Aid on this one.

There is clearly an issue with the iPhone 4’s antenna design when it comes into contact with human skin, and while it has a negligible effect in places with a strong 3G signal, anywhere that doesn’t show up the full five bars – like, say, my flat, or anywhere that isn’t Cupertino – runs a serious risk of dropping the signal completely.

I was willing to wait on a firmware update that could mitigate the problem somehow, even as the possibility of that looked more remote with each controlled test that demonstrated the problem, and I would have accepted an admission that the design was flawed and a free bumper, but Apple’s head-in-the-sand attitude was taking the piss, and the recent press release on the matter was a joke too far.

Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area.

Obi-Wan Kenobi would be proud of Apple’s attempt to hand-wave the issue away there. It’s admitting that there’s a problem with the iPhone’s reception and promising a software fix, but ignoring the fact that holding the iPhone 4 in the ‘wrong’ way will still drop the connection if you’re in less than ideal conditions. Whether I’m going from four bars to none or a more accurate two bars to none, I still end up with none. That means no calls, no texts, no email, no Internet, and a pretty crap phone.

But hey! Spend £25 on a ring of plastic – already a significant hike on the $30 US price – and Apple will solve the issue for you. Brilliant…

I know it’s embarrassing, and I know it’s potentially expensive, but this is an unacceptable design flaw that could have been solved without any aesthetic ill-effects with something as simple as a coating of nail polish on the metal parts – and I’m sure that Apple could come up with a less kludgy solution. I like Apple’s products, but I hope that one of the inevitable lawsuits forces it into addressing the fundamental problem with its new phone. The handling of this debacle has been nothing short of appalling, and when word of mouth gets around about how bad the iPhone 4 is at sustaining a workable signal because you had the temerity to touch the outer casing, I hope it does some damage to the iPhone brand. Tough love is apparently the only way that corporations will learn.

I’m going to wait and see for now. It’s under warranty and if there’s a fundamental problem it will come out soon enough. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take as long to be solved as the red ring of death did.

The Quest for Multiregion Blu-ray

Oh, for the good old days when I could just buy the DVD and know that it would work on my multiregion player…

The biggest thing that still hurts about the death of HD DVD has to be the fact that the market collectively eschewed a format that completely did away with the ubiquitous region codes of DVD. Thankfully it’s less of an issue on Blu-ray, but it’s still annoying that faithful UK film fans have to miss out on stuff like the Criterion Collection or are just now getting films that came out Stateside in November. I’ve got around it by combining a UK region B standalone player with my US PS3, but it was far from ideal, and coupled with some issues with my Samsung, I dove in to see what multiregion options we’ve got.

Given the more stringent licensing terms on Blu-ray, the current state of multiregion BD is a bit messy, either involving hardware mods or questionable firmware, and none are as simple as a multiregion DVD player. If you’re like me, with a large collection of films from all regions, it’s quickly apparent how spoilt you can become with that situation, not having to think about it at all when dropping a disc into the player.

I ultimately went for a modded Oppo BDP-80, which is a slightly cut-down version of the BDP-83 – generally considered one of the best Blu-ray players on the market.

The mod makes it completely region-free for DVD playback, and switching the Blu-ray region is as simple as putting it into standby, holding down the blue button on the remote, and pressing 1, 2 or 3 to flick between regions A-C. The majority of my BDs aren’t region coded and out of those that are, it’s about an 80/20 split in favour of region A, so I leave it set to A and flick it over before I go to watch a disc that’s locked to B. Again, not ideal, but it works and it works well, and it’s likely to be the best we’ll get until the budget Asian manufacturers start making multiregion players.

From what I’ve seen so far, I’m extremely impressed with its performance. It’s fast – this review of the 83 puts it on top of the PS3 in every test there, easily fitting my criteria of performing like a DVD player – and the picture is excellent, with lots of lovely options to fiddle with, and I particularly liked the ability to access the setup menu without quitting playback. I’ve left it on the defaults as far as picture tweaks go and it looks lovely, with some of my favourite demo discs – Apocalypto and Cars remain my go-tos – really shining.

Upscaling performance was something that concerned me, with the Oppo website recommending the 80 for “small or medium display screens”, but after being assured that my 42″ TV fell into that category – apparently you need to be in the 60″ and upwards bracket to qualify as a large screen these days – and testing it, my impressions are favourable. I’d put it ahead of my trusty old Pioneer DV-400V, which may now actually be retired given that its multiregion functionality has been matched. Oppo has quite a reputation for the quality of its upscaling – its first player, the OPDV971H, famously came out for $199 and proceeded to outperform a $3,500 Denon in objective tests – and this would seem to extend to efforts without the high-end hardware. I’d be interested to check out the 83 for myself, because I can only see so much that you can do with the limitations of DVD and would love to be proven wrong there.

So, then, it is possible to find a multiregion Blu-ray player, from the very good to the lower end, and the £50-odd premium on stock models is, in my opinion, worth it. I’m back to the good old days of DVD buying, getting new releases early and uncut from the States while simultaneously taking my pick from the cheap deals for UK catalogue titles that are available online. Now, if only somewhere had a version of Gladiator that wasn’t shit…