Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Apple iPad

So, today's the Big Day. The day when Apple changes everything. The day that they announced... the iPad.

I have mixed feelings about Apple products. On the one hand, I'm a fan of their design quality; Apple puts a lot of thought into making their products work well. I remember the first time I opened a G3 PowerMac case and being impressed by how well everything fit together and the ease with which Apple made it possible to upgrade and maintain the system. On the other hand, Apple often has a "our way or the highway" attitude that -as a PC user that is used to being able to configure my machine to fit my needs- I find absolutely infuriating. Couple this with their premium price and (undeservedly) smug attitude and it's no wonder I stick with PCs.

Still, I can't help but admire their hardware design and I don't turn up my nose if I can get my hands on it. Heck, my home network's file-server is a tricked out MacMini (albeit running Ubuntu, of course)!

So I have to admit I'm drooling a little bit at the thought of owning an iPad. Odds are, I'll grab one of the 16GB Wireless iPads when they come out in a couple of months. But when friends ask me what I'll use it for, I must admit I'm immediately taken aback.

The first thing that comes to mind is movies; the bright 9.7" LCD screen seems perfect for this, and it would be great to have a portable movie-player with decent battery life (Apple claims 10 hours). Of course, I can watch movies on my laptop or netbook too (or even my PSP or iTouch) but either the screens are too small or the form factor gets in the way. Having a nice flat 10" display seems perfect for portable video.

Yet almost immediately, it also occurs to me 16GB is not really that much space to hold a lot of movies. Oh sure, I could constantly swap a bunch of videos on and off the device but that becomes a bothersome chore (especially if I have to use Apple's god-awful iTunes application). Even 64GB isn't that much if you also intend to use the device for music, books and games. Streaming online video might be feasible... if the iPad supported Flash, which it doesn't.

Reading an e-Books is the second big application. Personally though, I prefer a device with a much smaller form-factor for that purpose. For years, I stuck with the Palm Tungsten E because it fit so comfortably into my hand and because I could carry it anywhere. Later I moved to an iTouch for the same reason. The Sony E-Reader and Amazon Kindle never appealed to me because they were just too large; I can't just stick them in my pocket and go. So I don't expect to use the iPad for reading books either. On the other hand, I can imagine using it to read PDFs of magazines and scanned images of books with photos or diagrams, something that a handheld device is not very good at displaying.  At the same time, it isn't very comfortable reading them on a computer screen either. I have gigabytes of PDFs that I almost never look at because of this. I think the iPad might be perfect for that purpose as well.

Web-access? I don't expect to spring for the 3G model, so this limits where and how often I can access the Internet. But even if the Internet was available everywhere, the joy of the modern Web is that it is collaborative; I don't just read articles but I can contribute my own stories and opinions. This requires me to type and -though the larger on-screen keyboard looks far more usable than the tiny things we have to use with smartphones- the lack of haptics means that typing on the iPad will never be as easy or instinctive as with a real keyboard. Thus, the iPad is relegated to a device you'd use only to do quick checks on your favorite sites or scan your incoming e-mail, a duty smartphones already do very well. But posting something on your blog, or even just typing in your username and password to your favorite sites? That's not something I would want to do often on an iPad; I'd still haul around my netbook for when I needed to do some real surfing. Oh, and then there's that whole "no flash" thing I mentioned above, which breaks about half the websites out there.

Apple also suggested the iPad could be a tremendous game platform. Certainly its larger screen and more powerful processor make it a better fit for "real" games rather than the casual gaming that has dominated the iPhone. But the lack of decent controls  (did you ever try to play an FPS on the iPhone? It's not fun) limit how far this platform can go. Plus, I already have several hundred games for PC and consoles and unless Apple is willing to let me run those games on the iPad (which not very likely seeing as they don't even allow the C64 emulator on the iPhone) I am hardly going to abandon those platforms for the untested iPad.

I guess you could use it as a music player... but no, it's too over-sized and bulky for that. Portable computer to do work on? Again, not with an on-screen keyboard, thank you. Phone (with Skype or Google Voice?)? Get real; can you imagine holding this sucker up to your face? It would make the n-Gage look cool in comparison.

So ultimately, why get an iPad? Well, it's a neat toy and I guess. But is that enough of a reason to buy one? I guess if you are a geek like I am it might be, but I'd be hard pressed to recommend it to the general populace. It hardly seems, despite Apple's hyperbolic claims, like something that is going to revolutionize the world.

Nonetheless, here are some pictures to drool over anyway.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Spall's Toolkit: Copernic Winkey

There are a handful of applications I just couldn't live without. I install them on every Windows PC I own and stash the installer on a 1GB Thumbdrive I call my "Toolkit". These applications generally are small and utilitarian, lacking the chrome and gloss of more mainstream programs, but they suit me just fine. I thought I'd use this blog to share some of them with you. Most of them are probably familiar to a savvy computer user like yourself, but a few may be new to you.

The first of these vital apps is Copernic Winkey. No longer available from the developer, it can still be found on a variety of websites with only a little bit of Googling. It's absolutely free, uses minimal resources and is easy to use.

Winkey is a program launcher that finally gives the Windows key real purpose. Microsoft has already enabled a variety of shortcuts that use the Windows key (for instance, Win+L locks your computer) but by and large this key is under-utilized. Winkey changes this.

It's interface is a simple window where you can assign various key combinations to launch not only applications, but also open websites, files or folders. For instance, I've attached "Win+S" to open Google with one simple keypress.

Unfortunately, there are a few caveats; this is a program dating back to the early part of last decade and it is starting to show its age. The most egregious problem is that it doesn't play well unless you are running as Admin. I have to admit, despite knowing better, I still often commit this cardinal sin (it's a PITA to do otherwise in XP). With a good deal of maintenance, you can get it to behave running as a limited user but it's quite the chore. The second issue is that Microsoft does not support third parties who use the Windows key; that key is intended for Microsoft usage only and they slowly but surely have been expanding the built in key-combinations that use the Windows key. Finally, beware an unrelated but similarly named piece of malware; make sure you get Winkey from a reliable site.

Given all these problems, you may be wondering if this program is worth the effort. If you are still on XP (I can't vouch for its utility on later Microsoft Operating Systems), I think it definitely is. I may have to reconsider (or find a more modern alternative) when I inevitably upgrade to Windows 7, but for now it does everything I need it to do. Thanks to Winkey, I have all my most frequently used programs and folders at my finger-tips; I rarely have to fiddle with the Start Menu or keep a cluttered desktop. A simple two-key combo and I'm right where I need to be.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Crowd That Entertains

 Okay, so here's something completely different. If you like sort of bluesy folk rock, check out "The Crowd That Entertains". They're a duo of British emigres singing about their experiences in the cities of London and New York with dry humor. They perform in New York live and even offer their second album entirely free. Their music may not be for everyone, but it's worth taking the time to listen to a few songs.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Call of Duty 6 - Modern Warfare 2

"Few games were hyped more than Modern Warfare 2. Few games deserve it as much as this game." That's the sort of thing you might expect me to say if I were a fan of the series. In truth, I haven't been that since the second game. You know what I have to say about this most recent episode of the Call of Duty series? It's probably one of the most dull and uninspired titles of 2009.

Not that it isn't jam-packed with non-stop action; like its predecessor, Modern Warfare 2 goes full throttle from the start and never lets off the gas until the end of the game. That is, in part, one of its failings. You are never ever given a moment to stop and appreciate the experience; as soon as one explosion-filled encounter ends you are immediately thrust into the next. You are relentlessly pushed forward, and if you dare to stop to catch your breath, endless waves of re-spawning enemies do their best to ensure it is your last. It is emotionally exhausting, visceral, bloody and ultimately has all the depth and engagement of a game of Pac Man.
Lost is the franchise's original goal of reliving the trials of an average Joe thrust into extraordinary circumstances; the bulk of the game puts you in the shoes of a unstoppable super-soldier who can soak up bullets like a tank and drop regiments of enemies with pinpoint precision (albeit one who gets knocked unconscious at the end of every other mission; it became almost comic by the end of the game how often the screen faded to black). The hostiles are faceless bad-guys and the combat has all the involvement of a game of Doom. But at least Doom wrapped itself up with an atmosphere of horror and gore; Modern Warfare 2's storyline is shallow and unbelievable, original in some of its settings but in none of the plot or characters.

The game is most famous, of course, for its multi-player. I can't comment on that; I (and as surveys have shown, the majority of gamers) don't play online. The single-player has all the frenetic pointlessness of a deathmatch game, so fans of the latter will probably enjoy the former. The game also ships with a selection of "special op" missions which can be played alone or cooperatively; tasked with specific goals such as "kill 30 tangos" or "finish the mission in 45 seconds" I found these more enjoyable than the main campaign because they were more focused. Even so, after five or six of these missions even the appeal of these missions started to fade; killing for the points (or "stars" in Modern Warfare 2 parlance) you are awarded for each success was not enough to keep me interested in the long run.

To add insult to injury, this "next generation" game looks anything but; even with settings maxed, it looks dated. The lighting lacks the sophistication of modern engines, the levels are archaically non-interactive, the animation is stiff and there's an artificial highlighting around the character models. Worse, there's rarely anything interesting to look at (although it's hard to tell since you're never allowed to stop and take in the scenery). It's not a bad-looking game, but it is surprisingly unimpressive on the graphical front. The engine itself may be capable but the artists didn't use it to its fullest potential.

The sound was disappointing too; in a game filled with all the bangs and booms of modern combat, I'd expect my sub-woofer to smoke from all the work it's being asked to do, but everything sounds flat. The soundtrack is unoriginal and fails to heighten the experience in any way, and the voicework - though competent - is an endless stream of faceless men yelling useless (and largely unheard) instructions that I quickly learned to tune out.

Modern Warfare 2 wasn't completely without inspiration; some of the levels - particularly those fighting in the suburbs of the US Capitol - had an appealing intensity to them (not surprisingly, these were the levels where I was not playing the role of an elite super-soldier but an average grunt part of a combined ops team). These levels offered the surreal horror of fighting a bloody conflict in such the familiar, homey setting of downtown USA. Beyond that, though, there was little to raise Modern Warfare 2 above the typical first-person shooter. At best, it's an average title. If you love the multiplayer, then doubtlessly this isn't a title to miss. Otherwise you may as well pick up "Soldier of Fortune 3" or "Rogue Warrior"; you'll get almost the same single-player experience for a third of the price.