Tech Nerdvana: Xbox One, PS 4 and iOS 7

It’s been a big few days in the world of tech and for geeks like us.  Microsoft showed off more of the follow up to both Windows 8 and the XBOX 360, Apple unveiled iOS 7 and Sony shows off its me-too prowess with an unveiling of the PS4. Me too seems to be the prevailing train of thought for all three companies: elements of each other’s tech and that of other companies have made it into each of these products.  There’s even a nostalgic flare to some of them.

I have already talked about some of the changes to Windows 8, so I’ll talk about. No, I will talk about the XBOX One, iOS 7 and a little PS4.

First, however, lets get iOS out of the way. 

iOS7webOSMultitaskAs it is from Apple, it has already been ably covered here and here. However, I want to through my two and half cents in as well.  So…here goes…

First, from what I’ve seen, it looks fantastic. They have taken the better parts of the current flavor of iOS, mixed in some Windows Phone/Windows 8 and even a bit of webOS.  The operating system appears to be a little more customizable, though not much more. It has a flatter, cleaner appearance and, best of all, it is backward compatible all the way back to the iPhone 4, iPad 2 and iPod Touch gen 4.

One of the more frustrating aspects of iOS is its poor multitasking. Well, it looks like that has finally been rectified by borrowing a page from the webOS playbook. Multitasking is handled more like the ‘cards’ feature of Palm’s webOS. You get a horizontal scrolling view of the open apps and you can then flick through them from side to side and flick up to dismiss an app. This is pretty much how webOS handled it.iTunesRadio

One of the more vaunted services that Apple fankids have wanted (though they poo-poo the notion from others) is some kind of Zune like subscription service. Well, Apple unveiled its iTunes Radio, an ad supported free Pandora like service. It will be available on all iOS 7 devices. An ad free version is available to iTunes Match customers.

There are other interesting aspects of iOS 7, like some of the photography related features (filters, better panoramics and more. Hit up one of the links above to find out more. 

I have to admit, I am actually looking forward to upgrading my iPhone 4 to this version of iOS.

Apple also showed a bit of its ridiculously named OS X Mavericks.  Not much to say, other than the AirPlay capability of adding a large screen TV as a second or THIRD display via Apple TV looks pretty nice.  APPLE.COM has more on the new OS and the complete keynote by Tim Cook and company.

Now, onto the video games.

E3 started and, with it, the two big keynotes from Microsoft and Sony.  I’m going to be brief with both, especially Sony, but want to hit what I think are the highlights.

First, lets just get Sony out of the way.

They ‘revealed’  PS4 waaaaay back in FEBRUARY. However, they really didn’t say too terribly much and did not even show off the hardware. They talked games and showed the controller. This time, they were more revealing. The console was on display and…it’s very similar to the XBOX ONE. Yep. SO, it seems both companies have taken a page from the 1970’s consumer electronics design playbook (which lived well into the 1980’s) and came up with retro designs, sans the faux wood. Hey, that might make the PS 4 look a little better.

Ok, Ok, enough ragging on Sony (it’s so much fun.)  This time, however, PS 4 looks a little interesting. The style and the guts are, dare I say, pretty cool…

Inside, you will find a beast of a machine:

  • An eight-core X86 AMD Jaguar CPU ps4
  • 1.84-teraflop AMD Radeon graphics engine
  • 8GB of GDDR5 memory
  • Hard-drive storage (not SSD)
  • Blu-Ray drive
  • Three USB 3.0 ports
  • 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Ethernet
  • HDMI
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • optical audio and analog AV out

Sony says there will be no restrictions on used games and you will not be required to ‘phone home’ like you will on XBOX at least once a day to play your games…the games that you bought either on disk or download.

The graphics from this monster look impressive and the game line up looks equally impressive. Oh, and the most impressive part? The retail price is going to be…$399.  Ummm…Microsoft…

Speaking of Microsoft

xboxoneMicrosoft unveiled the XBOX One several weeks prior to E3. The hardware looks great, the entertainment features look great, it is based on Windows and is, essentially, a beast Windows computer. Don’t let that fool you, this thing does not work like your standard desktop. Boasting three operating systems (XBOX OS for the games, Windows 8 kernel for the entertainment and apps and a controller to keep the two working together. It wants to be your internet appliance, your video game console and your entertainment and set top cable box. A bit ambitious, yes.

The games, like PS 4, look stunning.  Fluid motion, realistic water and fire (something that is difficult to do) and consistently high frame rates. But, with all of the goodness, come the badness…

The console requires that it be online at least once a day (in and of itself, not much of an issue since you will likely have it connected to your home network anyway) and the there are a ton of restrictions on games once you acquire them: can only be given away once, publishers get to decide if the games can be resold, etc. Rather draconian. And, then there is the price: equally monstrous at $499. And, with these two downsides (price, game restrictions) I think it likely that Microsoft just handy Sony the ‘win’ for the next gen consoles.

As much as it may pain me to say it, I’m thinking I might be inclined to get a PS 4 long before an XBOX ONE…if at all.

Windows 8/RT on your iPad? Sort of, with Smartglass for XBOX

smartglass2The Windows RT environment (the old “metro” for those of us who liked that name) is a rather elegant and clean interface.  It is one that lends itself to a variety of devices, from smartphones, computers and tablets and the video game consoles, specifically, the XBOX.

During the last E3 game conference, Microsoft demoed ‘Smartglass’, its answer to the Wii-U and other handheld and console combos, like Sony’s ill-designed Vita and PS3. In a nutshell, Smartglass is a means to present secondary game play or other information from the XBOX to a second screen. It also lets you remote control your XBOX.

At is simplest level, Smartglass is an application that works with the XBOX. There are version for Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, iPhone and iPad and Android.  You can get the app from the respective app store.  Windows 8, during install, however, found my XBOX and automatically configured Smartglass.

I also checked out the iOS version for iPad.  smartglass4Boy, the Windows RT environment would work very, very well on iPads.  Forgetting for a moment that I was actually using RT on an iPad, I was really drawn into the application and found myself doing things that are actually easier with Kinect or a controller, like navigating the XBOX dashboard.

Since I do not yet have any SmartGlass enabled applications, I was limited to checking out things like the new browser and getting stats and other information. Using the iPad as a remote control was pretty cool and really useful for text entry since it will take advantage of the iPad on screen keyboard.

The new browser for XBOX is nice. I was able to browse to smartglass1sights I visit the most, like Facebook, the Verge and my own blog. Each rendered correctly and videos played correctly.  Using Smartglass on iPad made browsing really’s the thing, if I want to browse, I’m probably going to actually use the iPad for browsing and not the XBOX. However, the browser does open up more content for your big screen (like Vimeo and the commercial networks) so it does have SOME utility. And, if you do not have a secondary device, you CAN use the controller to enter the URL, but it is a pain. You can use Smartglass to set up favorites and pin them to the dashboard and THEN use the controller.

Osmartglass6ne of the things Smartglass will do is show you your most used/played games and apps.  The recents page will show you played or used recently and you can tap on the tile to restart the app or game.

Smartglass really shines with the XBOX store. You can browse the store on the secondary device while the XBOX is doing something else. You can purchase music, apps or video in Smartglass and it will show up on the XBOX.

smartglass5Smartglass also lets you manage your XBOX account and avatar. You can customize your avatar on the iPad and it is updated almost immediately on XBOX. I think I prefer this over customizing the avatar directly on the XBOX.  I can use the funky XBOX controllers for games, but anything else? Forget it, I have the worst time.  Using touch on the iPad is more intuitive and convenient.

Perhaps the easy access to your gaming achievements is the coolest thing about Smartglass. You get complete breakdowns, by game, of all of your XBOX achievements. Now, I love to play games, but stick mostly to the Call of Duty games on XBOX, but, I smartglass8can imagine, others play a plethora of games so this feature is probably going to be the most important to these users.

Overall, Microsoft did an excellent job of bringing the RT environment to iOS and making it useful. Smartglass is, very likely, the nicest looking and smoothest iOS app out there.  And, best of all, it is free.

the blunders of Silicon valley: biggest mistakes made in the tech world

zune-topI was watching the movie ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley’, which chronicles the early years of Apple and Microsoft (and, by extension, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs) and noted several big blunders that were made during that time (and, indeed, since then, as well.)

Perhaps the biggest blunder of all: The Xerox brass not ‘getting’ what Xerox Parc had created.  Xerox Parc, for those who do not know, created the graphical user interface and perfected the mouse (which was invented by Douglas Englebart at the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford in 1967.) The Parc group presented the GUI based Alto computer, the brass had no idea what it was or what to do with it. It was, eventually, marketed as the Xerox Star, it was a failure for the company as it sold about 25,000 units.

While Xerox failed to capitalize on the GUI, a small company named Digital Research failed to capitalize on IBM and their new personal computer. The story goes something like this: Gary Kildall, the CEO of the company, was out flying when the IBM’ers stopped by. Kildall’s wife greeted tham and told them that Kildall was out but would be back shortly.  She spoke with Kildall who instructed her to proceed with negotiations. When the IBM’ers demanded that she sign a non-disclosure agreement, she refused and they left.  This story has been disputed over the years, but, the bottom line is the DR’s reluctance opened the door for Microsoft to lock up the operating system business on the IBM and its clones.  Even better, Microsoft had sold IBM non-exclusive rights to an operating system that they did not own.

Which, leads to another HUGE blunder…Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer wrote the initial version of MS-DOS. He bought a manual for CP\M and patterned his DOS after that.  When Microsoft promised an operating system to IBM, Paul Allen went to Paterson and offered fifty thousand dollars to buy his DOS.  Paterson accepted. Now, to be fair to him, Seattle Computer was a tiny company and fifty thousand dollars probably seemed like a lot for his unpolished little operating system, so you cannot fault him but so much. Still, in hindsight, this was a pretty big mistake.

Next, we have Apple.  They made mistake after mistake in the early years and a few very recently. Perhaps the biggest mistake that Apple made was not bringing Steve Jobs back sooner than they did. This was a company on the verge of imploding (which, oddly enough, is why they fired Jobs in the first place) when they finally brought him back. However, along the way, they: continued manufacturing the Apple II for far too long; failed to keep up with advancing technology; failed to modernize Mac OS; went through too many CEO’s; had a product line that was too big and too broad. When Jobs returned, he did turn the company around, but made some blunders on his own. Perhaps his biggest mistake was canning the Newton.  By the time Jobs took over, the Newton was beginning to make a mark in the PDA world. It was facing huge competition by the cheaper, smaller and easier to use Palm Pilot and was not part of the Mac product line so, after waffling a bit, Jobs shut it down. He also killed the Mac clone business. Now, some would argue that this was not a blunder, but, I contend it was.  Had the clone market been allowed to continue, Mac OS COULD have become a much more entrenched operating system and Mac hardware might have given the PC world a real run for the money.

Microsoft has made more blunders than I can write about here, so I will only mention the big ones.  Like the Zune.  Here, Microsoft had everything going for it: great hardware, decent software, a really good marketplace and subscription plan. They were able to secure the necessary rights for music and video (and, eventually, a few apps) but what they failed to do-and failed spectacularly: advertise the thing.  The marketing of Zune was abysmal.  Add to that, the initial hardware looked as if it were designed by Soviet era designers of missile launchers.  Then, there was the XBOX 360.  Now, I know it is a best selling console now, but this thing was a turkey in the first few years of its life. Due to a design flaw, the console would over heat and die, giving its users the ‘red ring of death.’ Microsoft made good and replaced the consoles as well as redesign the product, but it never should have happened in the first place.

Perhaps the biggest blunder in recent years was that of Palm.  Palm, the once shining beacon of Silicon Valley, was sold so many times and, in the process, not only lost its way (and lead) it made a series of blunders that should have killed it off years before it finally did implode.  First, they failed to keep the founders of the company, who went and started Handspring and LICENSED the Palm OS from Palm. Then, Palm bought that company for far more than it was worth. Palm perfected the smartphone concept, but failed to capitalize on it, mainly because they did not update the Palm OS quickly enough. Worse, they split the company into two parts: hardware and software.  The software company, PalmOne, then sold itself to a company called Access. While the hardware company maintained rights to the operating system, they had to pay Access to use it.  The last device from Palm to use the operating system was the Centro, a cutesy little smartphone that was too small and too under powered. It initially sold well, but, in the end, just served to hasten the demise of the once great company. Finally, Palm hired a former Apple executive to run the company. They introduced the Palm Pre and webOS, an innovative mobile operating system based on Linux.  The problem was that only Sprint carried the phone at launch. Poor hardware served to help sink the Pre, along with the ultra popular iPhone.  As Palm floundered, it put itself up for sale. Hewlett Packard purchased the company and, after introducing three webOS devices, decided to can the whole thing. And, that was that. 

Which leads to HP’s big blunder…it was fantastic.  The aforementioned acquisition of Palm led HP to announce the TouchPad tablet. The device was nice and powered by webOS. Problem was the price: it was too damn high.  Not a month after it was released, HP dropped its nuclear weapon on the device: they announced that the Palm division was shutting down. No more hardware would be produced, but existing hardware would receive support.  HP had thousands of unsold devices. They blew them out at a hundred bucks each and, naturally, they sold well. For a time, the TouchPad was the number two tablet, behind the iPad.  So, not only did HP tick off TouchPad owners, they ticked off OEM’s and suppliers as well. Companies that made accessories were left with stock that was now worthless. 

There are so many more…IBM’s failure to keep up with the PC world, New Coke, Sony’s PS3 (too expensive, too difficult to code for, billions in losses, etc.) and more.  Perhaps, however, the BEST blunders, in the tech world, anyway, was not from a company, but from the government…the FCC, to be specific.

First up, color television. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, color was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Over time, two formats became the clear contenders: RCA’s all electronic color and CBS’s electromechanical format. The RCA format was compatible with the now millions of sets in use.  The CBS format, however, was not.  The CBS format utilized a huge color wheel that was attached to a motor. The motor would synchronize itself with the video via a signal in the video. This meant that the colorcast (as they were called) would not be able to be interpreted by the black and white sets already in use. It also reduced the resolution to 405 lines.  Despite the problems, the FCC adopted the CBS system in 1950. Unfortunately for CBS, there NO sets capable of receiving the broadcasts. CBS went so far as to buy a television manufacturer to produce sets. With the goal of producing the sets in quantity, CBS failed. It became clear that the system would not gain acceptance and, to help them bow out gracefully, the government ordered that the production of the sets be halted. Only 200 sets actually shipped.  The FCC re-evaluated the RCA method and, after a few changes, it was adopted. The government lifted the production ban and, on January 1, 1954, NBC broadcast its first commercial color program, the Tournament of Roses parade.

The next big blunder, again from the FCC, was AM Stereo. In the 1980’s, the FCC approved stereo audio for television and, to help ailing AM radio, allowed AM stations to broadcast in stereo. The problem, however, was that they failed to adopt a standard. There were two competing formats and they were not compatible. Radios with one format could not receive stereo broadcast in the competing format.  The end result: consumer confusion, consumer ignorance (many did not even know about AM stereo) and the continued decline of AM radio. The sad thing was that both formats improved the quality of AM sound a great deal. An apathetic public just did not care enough.  AM Stereo is as alive today as the mechanical television.

So, the next time you make a mistake and begin to beat yourself up, just think about one of these blunders…all of which were costly for those involved. I am sure you will feel better.

Wifi issues? try an extender (and don’t forget the gas!)

Last year, we purchased a new home that is nearly twice as big as the house we had.  As with any move, you tend to either overlook something or just not think of everything, like the house using natural gas for heat. Imagine my surprise when I went to shower and had no hot water.  I felt pretty lame since I knew the house had gas logs in the fire place.  It was April of 2011 and the weather was starting to warm up, so I just didn’t think about the gas.  It took five days to get the gas flowing, but we could finally enjoy a hot shower or bath (that tub in the master bedroom is amazing!) One thing that was not flowing very well, however, was the WiFi.

At the old house, which was about 1400 square feet, my Belkin router worked great. Nice, fast coverage all the way out to my mail box.  Not here. No, sir.

Since we have an XBOX 360 and since it is in our ‘game room’ (really just the finished second floor of the garage, but nearly as big as the house) that’s where the cable modem and router are located. In the game room, WiFi works great.  However, go 20 feet down the hall and the signal would drop to half. Go to the opposite end of the house and the signal is nearly gone.  I have purchased two routers in the last year, hoping that would fix it. I got a Netgear ‘extended range’ router last time and that helped a little.

I even got desperate and put a router on a PC in our bedroom and tried to use it as an extender. That worked insofar as having a good WiFi signal on that side of the house, however, it was still saddled with the weak signal coming from the game room.  After a couple of months trying to get that setup to work, I just went back to the way it was and we just dealt with a slow connection in the other parts of the house.

Last week, I get a call from Comcast, my ISP/Cable provider again, and was informed that the cable modem was reporting signal issues going into the house. They setup a time and day for a tech to come out and fix. Well, true to their word, a tech did come out and worked on the line coming into the house. He found an EIGHT way splitter that he replaced with a three way splitter. That did, in fact, speed up our service.  Except for the WiFi, which was still rather slow.

Frustrated, we paid Best Buy a visit and walked away (after paying, of course) with a Netgear WiFi Range Extender (model WN3000RP.) We were told by the Best Buy guy that it was simple, just plug it in and pick your network name from the browser based interface. Really? It’s that simple? I don’t normally put a lot of stock in what I’m told by someone at Best Buy (sorry, if you work there, I mean no offense, but most of them generally do not have a broad product knowledge) but, this time, the guy was spot on.

WN3000RP from NetgearThe WN3000RP really is brain dead simple to configure.  It plugs directly into the wall, so it is also completely wireless. Once plugged in and the indicator LEDs light up, you can go to the browser on your computer and enter the address to bring up the extender’s configuration page.  It will detect all of the WiFi nets in your area. Pick the one you wish to extend and, if it is secured, you will need to enter it’s password. Once it connects, you are good to go.  No fuss.  It took all of five minutes.  Three of the five were me reading the little user guide.

So, did it help? Yes and no.  Yes, we have much better coverage throughout the enter house. Pages load faster and things like YouTube and the games on Facebook seem a lot more smooth.  However, some rooms in the house still have issues. If there is more than two walls, it seems, then the extender’s signal goes down quite a bit, depending on the device. My first gen iPad seems to be the most problematic.  Also, most of the rooms where the signal dies down are rooms we would not normally use WiFi, like the walk in closet or the attic.  But, for where we do use WiFi, the extender is working as advertised.

We can now enjoy the Annoying Orange in full, non-stop motion just like it was to be.  Life is good.

XBOX 360 Fall Dashboard Update

Since the Zune HD was released, it’s user interface has been praised. Microsoft liked it so much that they modeled the user interface for the redesigned Windows Phone operating system and, they gave it a name: Metro.

Metro has a nice, clean style that is fresh and, so far, unique to Microsoft.  It’s main features are its font and the live tiles.  Using an oversize but clean font and not worrying about screen real estate, Microsoft was able to incorporate features that other operating systems could not or, rather, could not do so easily enough.

XBOX Update (photo from Engadget)The live tiles not only represent applications or functions, but they are also ‘living’ in that they can present information from the application or the feature they represent.  Windows 8 will feature Metro and so will the XBOX 360.

Microsoft announced at the E3 conference earlier this year that XBOX would get a makeover and, now, they have delivered.

The refresh means that the XBOX has now gone Metro as well. 

Aside from the look and feel, perhaps the most notable change is the addition of the ‘app store’.  Not like the Apple App Store, but an app store nonetheless.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much there yet and the ‘biggie’ apps like the XFinity and YouTube apps won’t be out until early 2012. But, the promise and capability are there and I cannot wait for the actuality of those apps.

So, for what is there, how did they do?  I think they did well.  The system feels more stable and less hodgepodge than it did.  The clean design and pleasing black background as well as the replacement of the ‘busy’ cursor make the XBOX more like a family computer or media hub than a video game console.

Zune integration is even better and, contrary to early published reports, the Zune brand is just as prevalent, if not more so, than it was before. 

The tiles, while some were still blank, are a welcome addition and I can think of a lot of uses for them. Game achievements, friends online, etc. are a few things that come to mind.

Using the new interface took about a minute to get used to. It is responsive, very nice looking and easy to navigate. I think they did a better job with the controller interaction than they did with the mouse and keyboard interaction in the Windows 8 developer preview.

I think the real advance for the dashboard is the Kinect integration. Unfortunately, I do not have Kinect yet, so I cannot report on that, but the demo I saw was very impressive.

Installing the update took about 20 minutes and three restarts of the console, but it was trouble free-as has been my experience with XBOX on the whole. 

XBOX has been transformed into a powerful but easy to use home media hub. It not only has online access to Netflix, Zune and other media outlets, but it is also able to access your own media on your Windows or Mac  computers, a feature that is vital to making XBOX a media hub. My one complaint is that it cannot handle as many codecs that the PS3 can, but XBOX still beats PS3 in every category.

In a future post, I will discuss XBOX as a media hub. Stay tuned for that.

Overall, the new update is pleasing and a welcome change to an already superb product.

(You can read more about the changes here.)

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