Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Month: November 2008

Picking a PMP

Cowon O2

I have finally made a decision as to the new portable media player and I have to admit this has been the hardest gadget buying decision I have had to make. Arguably the reason is that in this instance there simply isn’t a device that meets my exact requirements, despite the fact price isn’t really an issue in a device I will be using every single day. The eventual winner was the Cowon O2. Several readers here will likely feel I’ve made the wrong decision, so I’d like to explain the reasoning behind this. As a warning this is unsurprisingly a fairly techie post but may still be worth reading for anyone considering picking up a player in the near future since I have actually tried out every player I mention.

Having already discounted the iPod, the new O2’s rivals were Cowon’s own Q5W and A3, along with the Archos 5. Selfridges on Oxford Street is the place to go for hands on with Cowon players (the only physical store I have seen stock them) while the Archos players can be found in various locations including Currys and Tottenham Court Road stores. While the A3 undoubtedly has the finest screen by a wide margin, its controls leave much to be desired. Ultimately though, it was its large size that prove decisive — this is a portable device after all. The Q5W and Archos 5 have many advantages in terms of a higher res screen, wifi internet, and overall nicer build and finish with a metal housing rather than the O2’s sturdy but less pleasing plastic. A few minutes with the Q5W swiftly proves what a wasted opportunity it was, unforgivably sluggish (perhaps due the fact it runs on top of Windows) and with complex and unintuitive navigation system, coupled with awful battery life.

Archos 5

So the front runners were the Archos 5 and Cowon O2 and choosing between them was nigh impossible (indeed I switched sides repeatedly). I realised that wifi internet is still of limited use to me and that my next phone is likely to support it anyway, so it ought not to be a consideration. Both had equally responsive interfaces, the O2’s being prettier but still inexplicably failing to organise music by ID3 tags. The O2 loads faster from flash memory and touts better battery life, but this limits its storage to just 32GB (plus an SDHC expansion slot for another 16GB+) while the Archos hard drives range up to a massive 250GB (I was looking at the 120GB model). This really left video quality vs audio quality as the final decision. Cowon’s legendary audio quality is still unrivalled, and the O2 is no exception. Yet the O2’s significantly lower resolution (480×272 vs 800×480) was a lot to give up, even though it’s smaller 4.3″ screen made it harder to notice and does offer impressively vibrant colours.

The bottom line is that if my ears hadn’t grown so used to the full, meaty sound of a Cowon player over the last few years, I probably would have gone with the Archos for its sharper video and additional features. But having had a Cowon, it’s really hard to give up and music remains as important to me as video in terms of media while travelling. Shrinking from a 40″ TV to a portable screen I am unlikely ever to be happy with the necessary loss of detail so perhaps it is less significant.

For those interested in price comparison, the 60GB Archos 5 is approximately the same price as the 32 GB Cowon O2 at around £250, but expect to spend another £55 on extending codec supprt and a dock for faster charging. The smaller 16GB O2 is around £210, while larger Archos players scale up to £340. As usual Advanced MP3 Players tends to offer the best prices.

PMPs have improved in great strides over the past few years and the healthy competition means the next generation may bring my theoretical perfect device. The truth is that the O2 is very nearly there if they could only upgrade the screen and arrive in this decade with ID3 support. With excellent audiovisual quality and a wide range of supported codecs I don’t need anything else in a media player so the extra options are nice asides but ultimately mere distractions.

Xbox Interface Overhaul

New Xbox Interface

I’ll discuss the weekend’s wonderful trip up to Cambridge once I get hold of some photos from the panto (I didn’t take my camera up with me). In the meantime I have a few thoughts on Microsoft’s new interface for the Xbox 360, which went live last Wednesday. I am not buying into their NXE moniker. “Experience” is somewhat overstating the product — it’s an interface not a skydiving holiday. It is the first time a console has undergone such a radical overhaul, though it is a logical step for a software giant like Microsoft. With so much strong content being released it would be wrong to say this update breathed new life into the three-year-old console but it was certainly welcome – the old blade interface was already arguably better than its competitors but as the games library grew, finding items online became a chore, scrolling through a list of hundreds of titles.

The other big change it brought was the introduction of avatars, undoubtedly inspired by the Wii’s Miis but a natural evolution with far more detail, taking advantage of the console’s superior processing power. Interestingly the facial customisation is arguably shallower in that one can select parts in various shapes and colours but there is no ability to alter positioning on the face. This is presumably to facilitate more detailed facial animation on the dashboard and in games.

However a large part of customisation is in clothing, which proves far more than just novelty outfits (although in future games may unlock new themed outfits) or exaggerated stereotypes. A behind-the-scenes video showed artists at Rare sketching concepts with fashion magazines as reference, which frankly seemed a bit excessive. The result, however, is that one recognises friends as much from their avatar’s fashion as their appearance – indeed my sister’s is most instantly recognisable from her choice of jumper. That I had not expected.

Live at the Apollo

Apparently the US financial crisis is now so bad that Americans have given up on racism.

-Russell Howard on the American presidential election

Finding myself unexpectedly free on Tuesday evening, Rav came through with an extra ticket to Live at the Apollo, stand up comedy being filmed in a hurried attempt to fill the void left by Jonathan Ross’ suspension. Needless to say the Ross/Sachs debacle was referenced several times, usually followed by the words “there’s no way this is making the cut!”

The performers were Sean Lock, Jason Manford, Russell Howard and Jo Brand (they were filming two episodes back-to-back given the tight timeframe) — excellent value considering the tickets were free! Sean is like every family’s amiable joking uncle. There’s an occasional harder edge to his comedy and his likable meandering belies a sharp wit. Jason Manford’s set felt tighter if not actually funnier. He seems like exactly the sort of bloke you’d like to hang out with and have a beer except that apparently he doesn’t drink.

I always find Jo Brand disappointingly inconsistent. There are some very funny moments when she does stand-up but they are hidden between large amounts of filler. Her self-deprecating fat/feminist humour works well in short bursts on panel shows but wears thin at length.

The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Russell Howard. I have always been a fan despite the occasional tendancy of his overenthusiastic delivery to get in the way of his jokes. Impressively, he easily maintains that infectuous energy throughout and it rarely derailed him. Perhaps most interesting, given the deliberate childishness of his delivery, is that he now has a point — Russell has a clear message underlying it all as he rails against those in British society who relish in their own needless anger, entirely oblivious to the realities outside their comfortable world. A child can be funny in a meaningless way, but a child with a point might actually convince people to change.

If like me your strongest memory of Minority Report is the futuristic gesture controlled computer system, and you’ve spent the past several years waiting for it to appear, you need to see Oblong’s g-speak. The first half of the demonstration video will blow you away, while the latter seems there largely to pad it out.

Child’s Play 2008

Child\'s Play

It’s that time of year again, but with a little twist. Every year I try to promote Child’s Play, the charity set up by Gabe and Tycho over at Penny Arcade which, since 2003, has raised over $2 million for sick kids in hospitals. That’s a pretty staggering way for gamers to show the positive side of this industry, in spite of the continually negative media coverage. This year I’m stoked because I can actually afford to contribute properly myself.

For those who don’t know the deal, here’s how it works. The charity has connections with various children’s hospitals around the world (in the UK it’s Alder Hey), so you pick one and can then view an Amazon wishlist showing the products the hospital would like to obtain. Choose an item and pay, the hospital receives it and a host of children’s lives are immeasurably improved as they await daunting surgeries and treatments. With each successive year donations have increased but in the current economic climate Gabe is expecting donations to drop below last year’s total. I’d love it if you could help prove him wrong.

Now that the news has had sufficient time to spread, I can safely offer huge congratulations to Andy and Irina on their engagement. Their cocktail party last weekend became a much bigger celebration following Andy’s proposal on Friday. Unfortunately I didn’t get to take any romantic snaps of the couple (or the ring) so I guess you’ll have to imagine it instead.

And finally you may have heard that the Home Office recently caught up with the times and announced the establishment of new cybercrime police unit with specialist training to handle online fraud in particular. Unfortunately they have been given the rather unimaginative title of Police Central e-crime Unit (or PCeU which looks rather like a sneeze). I strongly suggest that, with Tom Clancy having sold the rights to use of his own name to Ubisoft*, the Met proceed to acquire a license and rebrand the unit Tom Clancy’s Net Force. How else can they be taken seriously?

* Yes, that is quite likely restricted to videogames since his book publisher will presumably continue to flood the market with books not actually written by him.

Gearing Democratic Solace

There are various ways one might approach the US election results: a victory for the Democrats, African Americans or simply common sense. Others will slyly ponder that perhaps Americans have at last proven they can be trusted to elect their own leader. There is little doubt that the result fulfilled the desires of the silent majority, by which I mean the rest of world (inexplicably illegible to vote on some technicality), made clear by the flood of supportive global congratulations.

While people are not wrong to characterise Obama’s victory speech as sounding “historic”, McCain’s concession speech was also notably magnanimous and one can’t help but wonder whether, had he campaigned in that manner throughout, the finish might have been somewhat tighter. The fact Obama is “untested” remains the chief concern amongst many Republicans, but then this is a job for which there is no real test. For that matter, in what way exactly was Bush tested before he landed the role? Unless pretzel choking featured substantively, I’m fairly sure he would have failed. Obama’s campaign attracted some excellent minds and the people with which he now chooses to surround himself will greatly impact his effectiveness moving forward.

Quantum of Solace

Last night I headed out with Ben and Anna from law school to see Quantum of Solace for a second time, taking the bold move of actually remaining awake throughout on this occasion. While Ravi’s suggestion of an opening night screening last Friday had been conceptually good, the practicalities of end-of-the-week exhaustion and an 11:30pm start, possibly exacerbated by the beer in my hand, led to a somewhat inevitable conclusion. As it turns out, I didn’t miss much in the additional half hour and my original views were pretty much spot on. This way, however, I can proffer my review without risk of reproach. I can say with certainty: Quantum of Solace is definitely a film I have seen.

Gears of War 2

The flood of gaming titles continues with the much anticipated sequel to Gears of War. While already impressed with its improved graphics (less, though still some, texture pop but particularly more open areas and a brighter palette with actual colours!) and continuing cinematic flair, I want to take a moment to praise the design of the limited edition box. You heard me. Metal cases are becoming commonplace for collectors releases and they do look and feel great. However the oversize tins required to stuff in extras like artbooks end up unwieldy and seem slightly tacky. To get around this, The Gears 2 discs come in a slim metal case the size of an ordinary game, which is then packed with a book inside a larger card case and slipcover. It’s an elegant solution that I’d like to see other releases follow.

Forward Planning

Now that things have settled down, in both work and life, I should be in position to resume writing here more frequently. It probably won’t be regular because I’m still never quite sure when things of note are actually going to happen, but they do seem to. Which is nice.

Let The Issues Be The Issue

This post was actually written before the American elections finished so I will only touch on Obama’s victory briefly (at least until I can digest the results fully). While his platform of change became popular enough to secure the White House, actually effecting that change will still be an uphill struggle, particularly in the current economic climate where massive financial bailouts have left America’s national debt even more monstrous than previously. The rest of the world, however, is breathing a collective sigh of relief —arguably less that Obama is in and more that Bush(‘s cronies) is out and Palin wasn’t allowed anywhere near! I also particularly liked ad agency Grey NYC’s recent campaign inverting the races of the two candidates, urging voters to vote on issues rather than race. Londonders will likely have seen it on the cover of yesterday’s Metro. The posters quickly became collectors’ items.

Fallout 3

Currently I am preparing for the glut of high quality videogame titles heading this way. Although the numbers are roughly the same it seems significantly more daunting when combined with a job. Gabe and Tycho’s Operation Myriad is not far off. Better make those holidays count, I guess. I’m currently exploring the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. in Fallout 3 and the feeling of isolation they have captured is fantastic, travelling between small communities.  Rather than just being quest hubs, there is a real sense that these isolated pockets are just people trying to get by.

Mirror\'s Edge

I am also very pleased to announce that the demo for free running game Mirror’s Edge has placed it firmly at the top of the pre-orders list. I already loved the clinical art style of the metropolis and the videos they have released, but with jump puzzles generally being the bane of any first-person game, devoting an entire experience to exactly that would require a seriously impressive control system. Fortunately, that’s exactly what they have delivered with a surprisingly intuitive system for vertical interaction with the environment. The momentum you build up as you run is also key, particularly if you want to land on something soft after ziplining between buildings, since your momentum is conserved as you drop. The bottom line is that it can make you look and feel as cool as Assassin’s Creed, but without taking all control away from the player like that game’s one-button mechanic. I’m really impressed by this new EA, turned from churning out sports games, sequels and movie tie-ins to producing some really impressive and innovative new IPs.

"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2023 Priyan Meewella

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