Thursday, February 20, 2014

How Respawn and Titanfall is a positive step in the right direction ...

For PC gaming, that is.

I've been a gamer for a long time. As long as I can remember back to messing around with an Atari 2600 to Colecovision.

In recent years, I transitioned from PC gaming to console gaming. It made sense at the time. The graphics were great, the community features and online aspects were strong plus "it just worked". There were no upgrades to deal with, drivers to mess with and again, everything was built in to the ecosystem.

One of the best things about consoles is the matchmaking system for multiplayer games. There are no server lists to dig through. It either did it in the background or it was host based which has it's own issues but matchmaking was a very simple affair. Either way, it tried it's best to set you up in the lowest latency/best connection and that was it. Combine that with VoIP/team chat enabled as long as you plug in a mic and you have an painless experience for the most part.

But things started to change.

The community changed which is going to be a given as the price of said systems dropped and more people started adopting it. But that wasn't the worst change. It was the rage quitters and the players who can't gracefully take a loss. That and silly initiatives like skill based matchmaking which is another issue entirely and should be saved for another post.

Rage quitting is a huge issue. More so with host based, multiple player scenarios. When a salty individual decides that he/she can't handle the beating, they opt to just quit out instead of trying harder or learning to play better. Not sure what the big deal is with taking a loss unless these "e-stats" that are recorded mean that much to that individual - which it shouldn't because those stats are technically useless because of the fact that they rage quit to save their stats ... 

Anyway, the ease and speed of host based matchmaking has that huge drawback of affecting every player in that match if the crybaby, who may happen to be the host at the time decide to "dashboard" or quit out of the match. Sometimes the game is smart enough to initiate a host migration but other times, you're dropped back to the matchmaking screen. So that's a disruptive event.

So what alternative is there? Server based matchmaking? The rage quitting issue is resolved but others are introduced. You sometimes can't insure that you'll be placed on the same team as your friend because a lot of the game servers aren't coded for that. It's just not set up that way and it never really was. And watch out when there is a "balancing" feature enabled. Chaos everywhere. 

I mean, look at the current top server based shooter (commercially) - Battlefield 4. You still can't form a party before starting a match and getting in to the same server is a crap shoot. Sadly, this is also the preferred method of PC matchmaking for competitive type gaming. So it's harder for me anyway to make "casual" nights for gaming with friends harder.

So ... to the meat of this post. What has Respawn done with Titanfall that is so different. It starts with having the ability to invite friends into a party so that everyone will end up on the same team in that party - every single time. But what they've also done is something interesting. They utilize matchmaking servers to set players and parties. Then they throw them onto server instances in Windows Azure - the "cloud" shit that Microsoft keeps on touting for Xbox One).

What Azure does is that, in theory, they spin up additional instances of servers depending on the need at the moment. There are no dedicate server constantly up. It's all based on a pool system. So if there are less players, those instances should spin down. More players, instances spin up. The HUGE benefit to this, as long as there is enough infrastructure, is that everything should be seamless and invisible to the player. There are no server addresses to remember. No coordinating of where to connect with friends. Friend join party, party leader launches matchmaking and boom, you're in a game.

Add to the fact that now, you don't need a Ventrillo or TeamSpeak server for game communication up (Google Hangouts or any of the other VoIP apps work GREAT!) ... Respawn and Titanfall is pulling me back into PC gaming. If this trend keeps up and other developers figure out how to use Azure or other cloud technologies for server and matchmaking management, I think my console time is going to diminish quite a bit. 

Hell, having Titanfall being that much of a better experience on PC than it's going to be on Xbox One also cements my choice of not purchasing a One in the foreseeable future.

Thanks Respawn. Keep up the good work. Don't bother looking into putting in kill streaks in Titanfall 2. Please stay the HELL away from death streaks.

Also, the beta was awesome as fuck. Seriously. Only found one real bug and that was a minor graphical issue that I'm sure will be resolved by launch. Most fun I've had on a FPS game since MW2. I can't wait till March 11th.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

CableCARDs, PCs and not leaving well enough alone (Project DVR - Part 2)

Now getting a CableCARD can be a struggle in itself. It took 3 calls and 2 trips out by "technicians" to finally have a CableCARD activated. I hope your experience was better than mine.

Getting it all working was another issue altogether.

Biggest hurdle was getting the HDHomeRun Prime to recognize and find all the channels. My cable provider (TWC NYC) requires a Switched Digital Video (SDV) adapter to access all the channels with a CableCARD. Without the SDV, the HDHomeRun Prime would recognize probably 2/3s of the channels. Problem was that initially, the SDV wouldn't find any channels at all. This was because of the instructions from almost every SDV provider and device that requires it. This is why ...

Almost every diagram states the same. Wall to SDV tuning adapter, out from cable adapter to CableCARD device and USB from SDV to CableCARD device. Problem is, this didn't work for me. As soon as I connected it this way, it failed miserably. The signal to noise ratio was awful - from high 90s percent of signal off the wall to low 60s off the SDV.

Whatever I tried didn't work. Then I finally came across a different diagram.

And this indeed did work. It seems that the SDV only needs coax connection to receive channel data and out how to tune into the channels but it didn't pass any information from the cable out, only through the USB connection. So with a splitter and the HDHomeRun setup like the diagram above, everything ran perfectly.

The PC on the other hand was relatively simple to setup. Had an old PC that was just laying around that wasn't in use so I put it back into service. Only thing I had to do was purchase another video card because I didn't have a HDMI connection. Installed a fresh copy of Windows 7, configured Media Center and it wham, working DVR. Xbox 360s connected to that PC as extenders without any issues.

The bigger issue is that I can't leave well enough alone. Everything was working and there were zero hiccups. But I just had to slap this thing on out of curiosity.

I've had a Kill-a-Watt for ages because I used to run a lot of computers before and I got curious about how much electricity I was wasting away with my labs. But since I was planning on leaving this PC on 24/7 to act as a DVR, I wanted to know how much this PC was going to suck up. And the truth wasn't pretty.

It was in the 120-130 watt range. I'm no eco-fanatic but I understand that in the long run, this is going to ding my wallet. Hell, my current "gaming" PC idles at 60 watts (yeah, I had to check that too) and I don't leave that on all the time. So I started thinking about alternatives and how to replace this aging PC with something more efficient.

This is were the snowballing began ...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

DVRs - Or another idea that snowballed into a project ... (Project DVR - Part 1)

Now, this post isn't for the "cord cutters". If you're one of the many that were able to remove TV services and go OTA/Internet for everything, kudos to you! As for myself, I still need the occasional instant gratification of having all of those channels and nothing to watch.

So like many, I was using a DVR supplied by the cable company. You know, one of these.

It was there and it did it's job for the most part. Well, when it didn't reboot itself randomly when I tried to watch TV or other odd issues that required a forced restart. Then one morning, it started making a noise that I'm quite familiar with ...

The clicking sound of a hard drive ready to give up the ghost.

Hard drives do fail in time. Some sooner, some later. But this was the second time the hard drive failed in one of these DVRs that I could remember whereas not one (*knocking furiously on wood*) of my personal hard drives has failed in any of my devices. It doesn't help that the hard drives on these DVRs are parallel units capped at like 80GB which translates to barely any storage for High Definition recording. While it did have an eSATA port, if one of these DVRs did fail and I reconnected an external drive into the replacement DVR, it formatted the external drive immediately instead of using the available space and saving the recordings that were already on that drive. Plus, after trying out FiOS at a friends place, I realized that the electronic program guide on these units were ridiculously slow and kludgy.

After realizing all of that, I opted to see how much I was paying for this awful box and figure out if there were alternatives. What I found out was a bit surprising.

Per month, it costs $8.41 to rent the box and remote. Which really isn't much considering that they do replace if it does fail. But there was another line item in my bill that caught my attention - DVR Service $12.95.  This wasn't a huge surprise since I've seen that line item before but after scrutinizing my bill because of shoddy hardware, it was costing me $21.43 to have the additional privilege to record shows besides the cost to watch it live. Not cool. It was definitely time to look into alternatives.

Alternative #1 - TiVo

I've had friends and coworkers that really liked their TiVo units. But the initial cost is a bit high because I would've opted for a TiVo Roamio Plus for multiroom capabilities. That and there is a monthly subscription cost associated with the TiVo service which didn't appeal to me.

Alternative #2 - DIY DVR

There are various CableCARD units that will work with a PC to transform it into a DVR. Cost varies depending on how many streams it can handle at once but it ranges from anywhere between $150-$300. No additional monthly costs but you would need to supply a PC.

Both options will require a CableCARD which costs $2.50 a month (TWC NYC) which is easier to accept than $9.

I opted for a SiliconDust HDHomeRun PRIME because it was magically on sale for $99 during Christmas. To be honest, I was going to just replace the DVR set top with another one from the cable company till the SiliconDust happened to drop in price. The timing on that email from Woot was perfect and I had a spare PC just sitting around so I decided to try building my own DVR.

From there, the it was all pretty much downhill. Which I will get to another day.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Phablet - Fad or Future?

I've been pondering this one for awhile since the introduction of the original Galaxy Note and Galaxy Tab 7.7 which had an earpiece to use as a phone: are we inching towards larger devices as a whole and can we handle it?

Leaked picture of the new Galaxy Note 8.0

After the leaks about the Galaxy Tab 8.0 started popping up, the question popped into my head again. Having handled a Galaxy Note 2, I can almost use it as a traditional handset/cell phone without feeling too self conscious but I doubt I could do the same with a 7" or 8" tablet. I might be dating myself but it would utterly feel like I was walking around with a boombox slung over my shoulder. Sometimes, you have to know when to say when.

With that said, I'd like to think that we're going in the right direction with larger devices. The catch is that the way we use it and the way it's built has to be changed. Also our "social" norm of using a cell phone or a communication device will need to be altered. Everything clicked into place after watching an anime series - Robotic;Notes.

Robotic;Notes - Their phablet in phone mode
The idea of carrying around a tablet to have access to the Internet and data in general is becoming far more popular. It's not at full saturation yet like cell phones are but it's getting there. There are several obstacles to it becoming more prevalent; additional cost of cellular data enabled tablets vs WiFi only models and the monthly cost to keep those devices connected.

After seeing this concept in use within the series, I can see myself carrying around a much larger phablet as my do-it-all device. I'm beginning to appreciate the additional real estate that the bigger screen offers and it would be nice to carry one device instead of two (phone plus tablet). The problem is that I can't see myself bringing a device of that size up to my head to carry on a conversation. It would downright feel awkward. Which will mean that I will have to opt to use a headset of some sort or go in speaker mode.

Voice only

Video chat/call

Data consumption is one thing but using said phablet as a video/voice communicator brings up what is mostly a social problem. It would be awkward to bring up something that cumbersome up to my ear. I would just rather use the speaker function if it wasn't a "private" call (a good time to use a headset/headphones) or just go straight into a video call. But society frowns upon using a speakerphone in public.

I'm questioning why it's a social faux pas to have a conversation via speakerphone. Yes, admittedly if you're blasting your conversation a full volume - with a person next to you or over the phone, it's not very courteous. But why is speaking to a someone beside you a given yet unacceptable to do so over speaker? You're still speaking to someone when you're on a speakerphone, right? Why are there "quiet" cars or sections on trains which really only apply to cellular users since muted conversations are never frowned upon in said cars? Puzzling and it's something that I believe we'll need to get over with as society as a whole but that's just me. Yes, there is a time and a place for everything but using basic common sense should be more important than treating conversations, be it in person or over the air, be any different. I'm willing to champion and further this cause but I will need the right device to do so.

What I would like to see is a "mini" tablet that can handle calls, have a decent screen, isn't overly thick and has very good battery life - somewhere in the 10 hour range minimum. Give me a decent front mounted camera for video calls and give me an excellent rear camera. Not the usual underwhelming sensors that are thrown on tablets at the moment. If this is going to be my primary mobile device, I need it to do everything my phone and tablet can do right now. 

But leave off the earpiece. I won't miss it. Thanks.

And yes, keep on making larger tablets. They'll have a place in our lives too.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Battle of the Titans (for this quarter anyway)

Android vs. iOS. Apple vs. Google. Bringing either up will rile up rabid fanboys (and fangirls) as faster than you can yell "Incoming!" and have a chance to dive for cover. Some of the arguments make some sense but more often than not, it turns into irrational gibberish for the most part.

I've been following iOS since the first iPhone and have tried Android since Gingerbread with the Motorola Droid. After flip flopping back and forth trying both platforms one at a time, I'm finally test drove both for several weeks and I'm writing up my opinions on both in this post. This is just my two cents so that I don't have to constantly repeat it to friends, coworkers or strangers on this particular subject.

Apple iPhone 5 (Verizon) and LG Nexus 4 (T-mobile)

The latest iPhone is pretty much worth every praise that has been thrown at it so far. Everything from build quality, hardware selection and how it operates is a step up from the previous generation 4/4S. It's also finally has LTE which makes it on par with all the Android phones out there. Once you've tried LTE, there really is no substitute. In a non oversold/saturated area, I'd take LTE over some random WiFi connection. So yes, it's that good.

With all of this comes the ecosystem backing iOS and it's still the best out there. This is just my personal opinion but third party offerings still looks better or is only available on iOS for the most part. This gap is narrowing somewhat but there is still a noticeable difference.

Sadly, it's not all positives and good feels. The first party offerings are slipping. Apple Maps works and hasn't navigated me into a lake (yet) but the POI and overall polish feels more like a beta product than Siri is. The emphasis on skeuomorphic design really isn't my thing nor is the lack of consistency in presentation. An example of this is how the top bar goes "blue" in certain apps/menus (Calendars and Settings) whereas it stays black for the most part in everything else. That and ... iOS really feels dated. There, I said it.

That whole disconnect between hardware and software will hopefully be resolved with the change up in management but I don't believe it's going to make much of a difference till iOS 8.

And here is the latest Nexus device. After having had a chance to try out a Nexus S and having owned a Galaxy Nexus, build quality wise, this is the best so far. It feels solid even if I'm not a huge fan of the glass back. I would've thought manufacturers learned from Apple's mistake with glass backs on the 4/4S but it does add a quality feel.

Hardware wise, it's also not left wanting. I personally thought the Galaxy Nexus felt very part bin-ish and that Samsung cheaped out to make sure it didn't compete with it's other devices. This time around, it has a great processor, up to date camera sensor and a great screen. The colors doesn't pop like it does on an AMOLED screen but it's definitely seems sharper and cleaner overall.

Where it truly shines is under the hood and all of the first party/Google applications. Between Gmail which FINALLY has pinch to zoom to Google Now which feels more fluid to use than Siri, Android has finally matured with Jelly Bean 4.2 (IMHO). Plus, it's pushing the boundaries with Photo Sphere and other add-ons which is sure to come as a part of the Nexus program.

Now, the one huge omission is the lack of LTE. Yes, you can enable LTE via a test menu but it really doesn't apply to me since I don't live in an AWS LTE area (yet). Admittely, HSPA+ isn't as bad as I thought it would be. I've seen speeds up to 20mbps down and 2mbps up on T-mobile. Still no where near the 30/15+ on Verizon LTE but for the most part, it's usable. If anything, the truly noticeable difference is the latency especially if you're not stationary. During my testing, Verizon LTE seems to be less affected by movement/travel unlike HSPA+. YMMV but HSPA+ feels like "stop, stop, stop, burst" and LTE is more akin to "blam - no wait (unless you swing back to 3G)". So if anything, this hurts my overall opinion of the Nexus.

So the big question is ... which one did I choose?

Right now, I prefer the Nexus 4.

Even with the lack of LTE, I seem to grab the Nexus 4 more than the iPhone 5 and here are my reasons why.

I really thought that a 4" screen smartphone would be the best compromise size between usability and battery life. But I'm going to admit, besides the battery life (which the iPhone is amazing with in a good signal area), pushing it to 4" made it more than a handful. I personally can't one hand operate the device with ease like I did the iPhone 4/4S. So if I need to use two hands, I might as well pick the device with the larger screen since it's easier on the eyes.

Google Now is also a feature that I'm beginning to use and rely on more. Plus, I find myself navigating through Android faster than I do with iOS now. I can turn off/turn on features with less steps than iOS.

Carrier choice also plays a factor into all of this. I realize that it's a combination of device and network but you can enable WiFi tethering on the Nexus 4 without any additional fees on T-mobile. It's not a feature I use often but it's convenient to have regardless. That and the fact that I don't believe I should be charged for said feature.

With all that said, I don't believe you can go wrong with an iPhone. It's available via LTE on almost every carrier besides T-mobile right now and it's a great device. It's not like you can pick up a Nexus 4 with any amount of ease right now since it's sold out everywhere unless you want to spend a premium and get it through auction sites.

But if you're in an area that T-mobile HSPA+ is actually decent, it is a great alternative. Especially if you're not a heavy voice user since I'm on the 100 minute/unlimited text/5GB of "Faux G/HSPA+" data for $33 after tax. That is kind of hard to beat.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

It's been awhile

I probably can blame my laziness and procrastination on this but I haven't updated my blog in awhile. I guess my desire to make game play videos waned quite a bit since I began to realize how crappy MW3 was. I quit well before I got my monies worth of Elite/DLCs. Sadly, I had a lot of hope in BO2 and bought the Season Pass only to figure out that the same crappy netcode has made it's way to Treyarch's game ...

What I am going to do is take a suggestion from a friend and make it reality - to start blogging about tech.

I admit that I spend quite a bit of my own money on gadgets just because of personal interest. Between that and my friends stating that I have no true allegiance to any camp (I hate fanboys/girls), there is no real reason why I shouldn't throw out my two cents to the world. So here goes nothing!

My first real post will be about the two "biggest" devices out right now - Nexus 4 vs iPhone 5. Still need to take pictures of said devices and finalize on what I'm going to compare (probably everything) but when it's done, I think I'll offer an impartial view on both.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I'm not too bright ...

Yep. Exactly what the title states. Sometimes, I brain fart and make things a lot more difficult that I have to.

Lo and behold, EyeTV has an option to output directly to QuickTime .mov files in either h.264 or "MPEG-4". I'm opting for MPEG-4 at the moment since my previous experience with h.264 taxed and put additional load on iMovie. Even when I was only doing voice overs for commentary.

And that sad truth? EyeTV outputs to QuickTime a lot faster than dumping it to h.264 native and running that file through MPEG Streamclip. So I think I found my work flow till I upgrade to FCPX.

EyeTV -> QuickTime -> iMovie -> turbo.264 HD to .mp4 for upload to YouTube.

Yep. This works for me. For now.