Geekery Technology

Newton Reborn: Reviewing the iPod Touch

image by moparx on Flickr

In 1993, six years of research and development culminated in the release of the first Newton MessagePad, and, while handheld computing devices had been on the market for some years by them, the release of the Newton popularized the term personal digital assistant (PDA). The MessagePad left a mark in history, so much so that Newton is still a popularly recognized name – both for its successes and for its failures. It was Apple’s first big push into the realm of handheld computing, and it’s a push that ended in 1998 with the return of Steve Jobs to Apple. Ending Newton was perhaps one of his most infamous and controversial decisions at the time, and rumors ran for years that the Newton would return in some form. But it never did.

Then came iOS.

In many ways, iPhone and iPod touch are a modern realization of what Apple put forth with the original Newton devices; but they have decades of technology improvement to help them succeed where the MessagePad floundered. At a fraction of the size (the original Message Pad was nearly the size of a Kindle Fire), the iPod touch can take the vision of Newton to a whole new level, and the iPhone adds yet other facets to the vision of handheld computing – perpetual connectivity and instant communication. It is through this perspective I use my iPod touch. It is not a media player that can do a bunch of other great stuff; rather, it is a personal productivity device that also happens to play music and movies.

The iOS Experience

iOS 5 is nearly an ideal operating system for a small screen. Everything is very compact, yet nothing feels cramped; and the built-in apps make the most of the small space without cluttering or overcomplicating things. Every icon and button seems perfectly shaped and sized for finger taps, and the entire system is very smooth and responsive. After experiencing numerous Android phones (all running Gingerbread, admittedly), I found iOS to be a far superior experience in terms of touch response and visual aesthetics.

The first experience anyone will have with iOS is the Home screen. All app icons are spaced nicely in a loose 4 x 4 grid with slightly more vertical than horizontal space. App icons can either sit on the top level of the Home screen (which is what I prefer), or you can group them into folders. Folders and apps have distinct drop shadows behind them, clearly separating them from the background and keeping them visible even against similarly colored wallpapers. Note, though, that you can only put twelve apps in a folder, probably so folder contents don’t scroll off the screen. You can have as few or as many Home screens as you’d like, and I have several, each dividing my apps into categories. One tap of the Home button will return you to the main screen.

The Home screen is not without flaws, though. Row upon row of app icons can get very cluttered very fast, and the linen-backed folders are unpleasant to look at in quantity. iOS users have been calling out for Apple to rethink the Home screen for a while now, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it receive a facelift in the near future. The appeal of the customizability of Android’s Home screen – particularly on larger screens – is hard to deny. Some apps act like widgets when you launch them, Stocks and Weather particularly come to mind, but they are still simply apps. I imagine the designers and engineers in Cupertino are taking note regarding the limitations of their launcher, and I wonder if iOS 6 will bring any changes this summer.

Music and Other Media

Media consumption is at the heart of the iPod’s history. From the beginning, the iPod has been, first and foremost, a music player. Later generations added photos and videos, and some games were even available for the later clickwheel models. It comes as something of a surprise then to see how little Apple emphasizes the music and video aspects of the iPod touch when compared to its gaming and social networking features.

That said, the iPod touch is a capable media device. Its tiny built-in speaker is even capapble of a surprising amount of sound, though I wouldn’t recommend watching Iron Man with that speaker. Headphones are a must. The video and music apps are straightforward enough, and it can play back 720p video without a problem. The Retina Display renders high quality video very crisply, and album art looks great too.

I have to admit that may favorite use for the iPod touch is as a photo album. I keep more photos on my device than anything else, and all of the images look great. Photo management is very no-nonsense. (Sadly, iPhoto is not available for the iPod touch.) Everything stays easy to find and navigate, and Photo Stream ensures my latest pictures are on the device before I think about it. If all you’re going to use an iPod touch for is music, video, and images, you’ll come away very satisfied with the experience.

Using Apple’s Apps

Apple’s default apps are very functional and will serve most users perfectly well. Reminders easily handles your to-do list while syncing those items with the Calendar. Mail handles all of my accounts easily and even syncs up with my Exchange account at work, and Messages is a simple and capable IM client. Pretty much everything you’d expect the device to have is there when you launch it. Yes, you can find more capable apps in the App Store if you like, and I have replaced many of Apple’s default apps with third-party programs, but Apple’s supplied apps will serve the majority of users perfectly well.

One stand-out app is Safari. I’ve tried numerous iOS browsers, and I keep coming back to iOS’s default browser. It handles tabs well on the small screen, renders pages quickly and accurately, scrolls smoothly, and zooms in and out with ease. I’ve caught myself with eight or more tabs open without the browser stuttering at all. Safari set the bar among mobile systems, and it is still the best mobile browser I’ve used. It really makes iOS devices stand out among their peers if you do much browsing.

If I have any complaint about Apple’s default apps, it’s a fascination with skeuomorphism to the detriment of aesthetics. To an extent, applications emulating real world counterparts can lower the barrier to entry, but Apple’s designers are inconsistent with their implementations and sometimes even include interface elements that look like they should do something – but they don’t. With the Calculator app, skeuomorphic design makes sense; the blatant use of leather in apps like Reminders and Find My Friends, though, can be more distracting than helpful. And don’t even get me started on Game Center. Perhaps, like the brushed metal interfaces of last decade, this trend is just a temporary diversion for Apple.

Some apps associated with iOS are not actually included. Find My Friends, iBooks, and iTunes U are all separate downloads. Find My Friends is capable enough for stalking friends and family, but, if you are already familiar with Path or Foursquare, you may find its limitations (and leather interface) annoying. iBooks is a wonderful e-reader/PDF manager, but I can’t really recommend it for the iPod touch as it runs very slowly, and iTunes U stands out as a very capable way to access numerous courses from various schools. It even includes syllabi, an assignment manager, and notebooks for each of your courses. Oddly enough, it runs much more smoothly than iBooks even though it looks virtually identical.

On the theme of reading, Newsstand also works well for magazine subscriptions, though the actual issues’ file sizes can become cumbersomely large. Many magazines have free issues you can download with the option of purchasing back issues as well as subscription plans. My only real issue with Newsstand is that you can’t pop it into a folder – it being a folder itself. Oddly enough, each magazine is treated like a separate app and will individually appear in the application switcher right alongside the icon for Newsstand.

Finally, none of this would mean anything if trying to type was unpleasant, but the iOS keyboard is very accurate and fast. First, you should turn auto-correction off (unless you want potentially disastrous hilarity to ensue). Even with my large thumbs, I make very few errors, and the magnifying glass for placing the cursor makes corrections easy, if a bit slow. I really thought I would dislike typing on the iPod touch, but I find the experience surprisingly tolerable. I won’t be blogging on the soft keyboard anytime soon, but I haven’t minded posting a few tweets or composing short emails. It works very well.

Notifications, Multitasking, and Sync

Let me be clear from the beginning: I do not like notifications in general. Perhaps my early years as a Windows user turned me off of them thanks to the task bar perpetually popping unnecessary messages in front of whatever I was doing. Therefore, I may not be the best person to review the way iOS handles notifications. In fact, I turn most of them off. Nothing is allowed to pop up in the middle of the screen or even descend from the top. I keep everything hidden in the notification center and on the lock screen, so I’m only pestered by them when I want to be. Perhaps that’s what I like best about iOS notifications – the ability to hide them away.

Multitasking in iOS is limited and accomplished through some specific background tasks. Audio, local and push notifications, and location services can all run while other apps are active. If you switch apps while completing a task, the busy app has a given amount of time (usually ten minutes) to complete the task before being cleared from memory. All apps are suspended in memory when you switch from one to another, and the first four to five icons you see in the application switcher are usually still stored in the system memory, unless it’s been ten or more minutes since you switched apps.

iOS perpetually quick saves everything you do, so, even if an app is forced to quit and clear memory, chances are you will be able to relaunch the app exactly where you left off. iOS is very conservative when it comes to memory management, and it’s probably one of the reasons the system, as a whole, is so responsive. It’s a very different approach from Android, that takes a more desktop-like approach to memory management, and it comes with its own unique tradeoffs. The benefits in battery life and overall performance, however, are worth the minor inconveniences.

Syncing is very easy if you have iTunes and an iTunes account, but it’s slow. Fortunately, thanks to iCloud, I do very little syncing. My iPod is a self-contained machine, and I let iCloud manage music, document, and photo syncing. All my apps are backed up in iTunes on my Mac, but that also happens automatically through my iTunes account without me having to plug the iPod into the computer. Syncing iPods has always been easy but painful. Thanks to iCloud, the painful part is all but gone.

Acquiring Stuff

There are four major venus for adding apps, music, books, and videos to your iOS device. Apps are acquired through the App Store. Music and video come from separate iTunes stores, and books can be purchased in the iBooks store. Each of these stores is contained in its respective app, but they all look strikingly similar. I’ve discovered that, as long as you know what you want, browsing Apple’s stores is very easy. Discovering new and exciting apps can be a bit more problematic.

If you use a third party media app, like Amazon’s Kindle reader, chances are you won’t have direct access to that app’s store. It’s a bummer, but it’s seldom tough to get your purchased content onto the iPod. Various video and music streaming services are also available as alternatives to Apple’s offerings.

Software Wrapup

I could probably write another two thousand words on iOS and still be missing features. It’s a very robust and mature mobile operating system. It set the standard for touch-based computing before anyone thought it would catch on. It still has some rough edges, and some of Apple’s business decisions are unpalatable, but iOS is as popular and ubiquitous as it is for a reason. The system is simply great. If I had to choose between an iOS device and anything else on the market, iOS would come out on top every time.

The Hardware

Where iOS represents the culmination of Apple’s work in mobile computing, the iPod touch’s hardware is a blast from the past. It is extremely thin and light, but it is very underpowered when compared to Apple’s other iOS devices. It utilizes a single core A4 processor as opposed to the dual core A5 in the current iPhone. Storage starts at 8 GB instead of 16 GB, and it only has 256 MB of system memory (compared to 512 MB in the iPhone 4S and 1 GB in the new iPad). The performance hit is noticeable too.

iBooks and GarageBand are extremely sluggish, with launch times hovering around twenty to thirty seconds. Many games are also slow to launch (yet still faster than the Kindle Fire in my tests), and the keyboard can even be unresponsive at times. The system is too modest, and the low end model comes with too little storage. It takes no time to fill 8 GB. Better that it should have 16 GB like the other low-end iOS devices.

The camera is frightful. It captures decent video, if somewhat noisy in quality, but still images are worthless. The camera is 0.7 megapixels. There’s just no point in trying to capture a shot with it. That Apple includes the ability to take still shots at all is almost insulting. The iPad can take competent shots; the iPhone 4S takes very nice photos; why does the iPod touch get the short end of the stick here?

All complaints aside, the hardware is sturdy. I’ve dropped the iPod more than a few times now, and the glass on front has taken only one scratch. The back is fairly scuffed, but is easily protected with a small case. The Home button is perfectly recessed, making it nearly impossible to accidentally activate the device, and it feels very solid in my hand. Despite the meager tech specs, this does not feel like a cheap device.

The greatest feature is the screen. With a pixel density double most similar devices, the screen stuns. Images and text render beautifully without a single visible pixel in sight. Colors are bright and vibrant. Reading is very pleasant. Even video stands out nicely on the minuscule screen. It makes my MacBook Air’s screen look positively archaic by comparison.


The iPod touch contains both the best and the worst of Apple’s iOS devices. The build quality is great. The screen is amazing, and iOS is a beautiful and smooth operating system. Still, the device’s sluggishness and the poor camera mar the experience. It’s not a bad device by any stretch of the imagination, and it still feels more responsive than many inexpensive Android devices on the market; it just falls short of the high standard Apple’s other iOS devices set. If you want a small iOS device and you can afford a data plan, get an inexpensive iPhone. Even the previous generation iPhone 4 will give you faster performance, more storage, and a better camera.

If you are set on getting an iPod touch, throw in the extra $100, and get the 32 GB model. The 8 GB fills up far to quickly, and that very slight premium nets you four times the storage capacity. By the time you pay for a 64 GB model, you’re at the same price as an iPad 2. The 32 GB iPod touch is the sweet spot.

As far as the future goes, it’s hard to tell what’s in store for the iPod touch. Rumors persist that a 7-inch iPad is on the horizon, and, if true, it will undoubtedly hover close to the iPod’s price. The last iPod touch refresh saw no hardware updates – only the addition of a white model – so we’ve no gone almost two years without a real update to the device. With the exception of the Galaxy Player, nothing else is available quite like the iPod touch, but it’s unclear if this is a niche Apple wishes to continue to pursue.

Given the opportunity, would I buy my iPod touch over? Yes. I like it. The only difference would be that I would get the 32 GB model. Despite its flaws, I find it extremely useful, and it’s become an essential part of my daily routines. Yes, I’d still recommend an iPhone first, but, if you want a capable handheld computer without the burden of a data plan, then you can’t go wrong with an iPod touch.

Geekery Technology

Google’s About Face

image credit goes to Steven Troughton-Smith

An avalanche of truly fascinating information has been pouring out of the Google-Oracle trial, not the least of which being documents about the prototypes of Google’s early Android phones. You can find some software and hardware shots over at The Verge, AndroidPIT, and High Caffeine Content, and there’s no question that the direction Google was taking Android in 2006 and 2007 was far different than what they would release in the fall of 2008.

Back during Android’s development, Google appeared to be set against the idea of touch screens as the primary input. Several months after the iPhone was released, Google had this to say about touch screens:

Touchscreens will be supported. However, the Product was designed with the presence of discrete physical buttons as an assumption, therefore a touchscreen cannot completely replace physical buttons.

Somewhere between 2007 and 2008, Google decided to make an about face and follow Apple’s lead on touch screens. This isn’t about Apple versus Google though. What it’s about is the impressive speed at which Google changed gears on Android development. In roughly twelve to fourteen months, Google took Android from being squarely aimed at keypad-based phones and turned it into a capable touch screen environment. And yes, the rough edges showed in the original Android phones, but the nimbleness demonstrated by the development team is staggering.

One year from old to new. Images from Steven Troughton-Smith and Wikimedia Commons.

Google wasn’t the only to initially scoff at the iPhone’s touch screen, but they were the first to realize their error and do something about it. It took Microsoft three years to unveil their response to iOS and Android. The same is true for Blackberry, and how are those two doing in the mobile industry today? According to Gartner, Android is on 51% of smartphones sold to customers, and iOS accounts for 24% of sales in Q4 2011. Between 2007 and 2012, the mobile industry has been dominated by two newcomers, newcomers who now control 75% of the smartphone market. In contrast, veterans Research In Motion and Microsoft are hovering around 9% and 2% respectively.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face about the merits of iOS and Android over the other. We can pick nits about nuances of both platforms, but the simple truth is this: Apple changed the game with iPhone, and Google was the first of the mobile companies (before they had even released anything tangible) to see the shift and respond in kind. They did so with impressive speed and created a product millions of people have come to use and enjoy. When looking at how far Android has come in a very short time, I can’t help but come away impressed.

Geekery Technology

Quick Hands-On with the New iPad

image © Apple, Inc.

I was able to spend some quality time with the new iPad (a.k.a “iPad 3,” a.k.a “iPad HD,” a.k.a “The One Pad to Rule Them All,”). I ran it through a few games and apps and spent some time looking at books and magazines. I have to say it is a noticeable step up from the iPad 2, and the display leaves every other tablet looking outdated by comparison – even its own direct predecessor. This update is all bout pixels, and everything else takes a back seat to a display that you have to see to truly appreciate. This is not a revolutionary new take on the tablet computer, but it is enough of an evolutionary step that even some iPad 2 owners might stop to take a look.

The Display

The real story here is the new iPad’s 2048 x 1536 display. At twice the resolution of the previous iPads, this display sports four times the pixels of its predecessors. The original iPad and the iPad 2 featured 132 pixels per inch, and the new display has 264. Despite the Retina Display marketing, the iPad’s display falls short of the magical 300 ppi where most people can no longer perceive pixels, but it’s very close. It’s so close, in fact, that I had to look pretty ridiculous in our local Best Buy trying to pick out individual pixels on the display. For all intents and purposes, they are indiscernible.

Of course, this means that high resolution photos look fantastic while low resolution images on the web look pretty heinous. Apps that have been updated to take advantage of the display are incredibly crisp, but apps running at the lower resolution look a bit fuzzy in places. I imagine there will be a quick scramble among iPad developers to quickly double the resolution of their apps (if they had not already started based on rumors). This brings a frustrating dilemma to universal app developers, though, for they will now have four screen resolutions to support – the original iPhone’s 320 x 480 and its newer 640 x 960, the original iPad’s 768 x 1024 resolution and now the new 2048 x 1536 display. It makes one pine for the old discussions of resolution independence.

image © Apple, Inc.

With the new display, this is the first time I can, without reservation, recommend the iPad as a reading device. Text is incredibly crisp, both in ebooks and on webpages. Again, any screenshots are incapable of doing justice to this feature, for your own computer’s screen is probably running at a lower resolution, thereby removing definition from the images. Nothing on the market with an LCD this size or larger renders text a crisply and clearly as the new iPad.

The only problem I ran into is that the model I was testing out had a noticeably warm tint. I found this distracting, especially since I usually calibrate my own displays to the cool side of the spectrum. Based off Twitter, I’m not the only one to notice this, but results have been inconsistent. Since there’s no user-accessible way to change the temperature of the iPad’s display, I hope Apple will release a fix for this in the near future.

The Rest of the Hardware

There’s not much to say about the rest of the device. Physically, it’s basically identical to the previous two models – a little thinner than the first, a little thicker than the second. The internals are faster, and it shows. Games and apps launched quickly; pages in iBooks turned smoothly, and the library loaded instantaneously; frame rates were good in intensive games; photos and other images scaled smoothly; Keynote and GarageBand ran without a hitch. If you own either previous iPad, you’ll notice the better performance of the newest model.

The camera is much better than before. The iPad 2’s camera felt like a serious afterthought, taking video at a respectable 720p but capturing still images at an embarrassing 0.7 megapixels. The new camera captures 1080p video and 5 megapixel images. It moves from being terrible to being okay. In truth, since it impossible to take a picture with a tablet without looking ridiculous, you should only use this camera in the most dire of circumstances. It’s nice to know it’s now a serviceable camera if you absolutely must use it, but you really shouldn’t.

Storage is identical. It should have increased, and let me tell you why.

Picking Nits

The new iPad is beginning to show the chinks in iOS’s armor. The reliance on bitmaps for everything means developers have to plan out and use different resolutions interface elements for different screen sizes. This means an app designed to run on an iPhone 3G, and iPhone 4S, and an iPad 2 will be much larger than an app designed only for iPad 2. Now, apps and magazines designed to run across all iOS devices, including the new iPad’s higher resolution screen, could balloon in size. This brings us back to the discussion of resolution independence. By vectorizing interface elements, apps could scale up or down to various resolutions while rendering consistently across those different screens.

Now we come to storage. Apps are going to take up more storage now. 1080p iMovie projects will consume a great deal of space. Higher resolution images in magazines and photo libraries will take up more space, but the storage is the same. Chances are, with the investment that obviously went into the screen, increasing storage while keeping the same price point would have improbable. Still, it would have been nice for Apple to have offered the option to have a high-end model with 128 GB or more of storage.

Wrapping Up

image © Apple, Inc.

Besides a couple of small issues in display temperature, potential storage constraints, and my continual wish for a resolution independent mobile operating system, the new iPad is a wonderful device. It responds to touch commands better than any other tablet I’ve used. It renders text better than any other tablet out there (excluding e-ink displays, sorry). The screen is almost unbelievable. It’s almost like the sensation you get when watching a DVD and then seeing the same film in 1080p HD – except this screen has a million more pixels on it than an HDTV. The new iPad not only defines its product classification, it now clearly outshines everything else in the category.

Geekery Technology

Two Apples, One Macworld

From the Macworld Expo in January of 1997:


The contrast is amazing. On the one hand, you have Gil Amelio’s rambling introduction that carries little conviction. On the other, you have Steve Jobs coming on stage with quick wit, a concrete plan, and a clear presentation of said plan. The contrast is made all the more stark by Amelio’s rather painful appeals to celebrity cameos and the introduction of one of Apple’s most unsuccessful products after Jobs is finished.

The contrast between the old Apple and the new was evident even before the transition began.

(Tip of the hat to John Gruber for pointing to this video on his blog.)

Geekery Technology

Confession of a Veteran Apple Customer

My first Mac was an iMac, and not one of the cool flat jobs they sell today with Intel inside. It wasn’t a G5 either. It wasn’t one of those nice looking Luxo iMacs with the G4 processor and swiveling screen. Nope, it was a G3 dating back to late 1999. (I would have probably picked up my first Mac earlier than that, but I wasn’t the one deciding on what computer was in my home at the time.) It had a blazing fast 400 MHz processor, 64 MB of memory, and a 13 GB hard drive. It couldn’t burn a thing, and it came with that awful hockey-puck mouse that set the precedent for Apple designing bad mice. The iMac shipped with Mac OS 9.0.

Of course, my favorite Mac (and the one that would last almost seven years) was the PowerBook G3. Released in February of 2000, the PowerBook featured a 500 MHz processor, 128 MB of RAM, and a 12 GB hard drive. It served as my primary machine long after the iMac would bite the dust. I upgraded the hard drive once to 30 GB, upped the RAM to 512 MB, replaced the DVD-ROM drive with a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive, and didn’t replace the machine until its case began to fall apart. Most importantly, this was the computer on which I installed the Mac OS X Public Beta. It’s final software upgrade would be 10.4 Tiger before it was finally replaced with a MacBook Pro in January of 2007.

image by newtc_uk on Flickr

The point is this: I remember an Apple that traded at $5.00/share. I remember an Apple before the iPad, iPhone, or even the original iPod. I remember when iTunes first came out for OS 9 and its ushering in of Apple’s unfortunate fetish for brushed metal windows. I remember the painful transition from the old and familiar OS 9 to OS X. I remember the PowerMac G4 Cube coming and going as well as Apple’s portables languishing during the final months of the PowerPC processor when nothing better than over-clocked G4s could stay cool in Apple’s thin laptops. I remember when the iPod was a Mac-only media player and when FireWire was going to be the Next Big Thing. I remember the Intel transition, and, I have to admit, I still think of Apple’s products in terms of iBook, iMac, PowerBook, and PowerMac even though those names have now been dead for at least six years.

Rooting for the Underdog

I remember what it was like to see Windows machines leapfrog their Macintosh counterparts in price and performance, trying to defend my choice of computing platform in the face of a dwindling customer and developer community. There was a closely-knit core of Mac indie developers in those days before being an indie developer was cool. I remember how reviled the original iPod was among tech circles for its relatively modest specifications. I remember being actively made fun of in some of my computer classes for clinging to my aging Mac, and a part of me actually relished it. A part of me wanted to keep using Macs specifically because they were so unpopular. I liked supporting Apple because they were the underdogs. I like the counterculture feeling of owning a Mac.

This is why it feels a bit strange to still be a loyal Apple customer, for now they are among the most valuable companies in the world. They have $97 billion cash on hand, and they shipped over five million Macs last quarter (not to mention 15 million iPads, 15 million iPods, and 37 million iPhones). I can recall days when shipping one million Macs was considered a milestone for the company. This isn’t just me shaking my cane and yelling at kids to get off my lawn. It’s a tacit admission that Apple is now no longer the underdog, and there’s a part of me that doesn’t like that. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to share them with all of these new users who don’t remember HyperCard.

There’s also a part of me that’s ready to move on from Apple. I want another underdog to support. I was sincerely hoping to pick up an HP TouchPad during its fire-sale purely on principle. I’ve already spent some time with Linux as my wife’s netbook is running the most recent version of Ubuntu, and I went shopping recently with the express intent of picking up an Android tablet – specifically the Kindle Fire or the Nook Tablet were on my radar, though I was open to a Galaxy Tab or other tablet. Still, I walked out with an iPod touch. As much as a part of me wanted to jump ship and find a new computing minority to join, I found myself still gravitating toward Apple’s products.

More Than an Underdog

I didn’t get my first Mac for the sole reason that it didn’t run Windows. I went after it because I truly enjoyed using the Mac platform more than I liked Windows. My old IBM Aptiva running Windows 95 left me wanting something better, and the iMac was exactly what I was looking for. My PowerBook G3 is the single most reliable computer I’ve ever owned. I stuck with Apple through the difficult OS X transition because I genuinely believed OS X would be a superior operating system to Windows XP, and, eventually, it was. It even retained that superiority through the life of Windows Vista. Even today, the MacBook Air I’m typing this on is my favorite computer on the market today. I haven’t stuck by Apple only because of their underdog status; it’s also because I believe they make best-of-class products. And that makes them hard to abandon, for no one else’s user experience quite measures up in comparison.

Poor sales and tiny community? Sign me up!

Ubuntu is an interesting project, and I believe they are doing a lot of things right. Still, the system is very Windows-like, and there are several rough edges to the user experience that just don’t exist in OS X. Every Android tablet I tried compares unfavorably to the iPad in terms of how enjoyable and easy they are to use. Both the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet compare unfavorably to the iPod touch as e-readers, and the selection of quality software for either device pales in comparison to the rich selection of apps for iOS devices. This was another factor for my loyalty to the Mac – yes, the quantity of dedicated developers was small, butt the quality of software created by those independent developers was amazing. The iOS App Store offers millions more apps than used to be available for the Mac, and there is a great deal more junk available therein. The quality among the passionate, however, is the same.

Being Okay With Superdog

The iPhone, while not having the most impressive tech specs available, is a truly excellent device to use. The same is true of the MacBook Air, the iPod touch, and the iPad. Yes, Apple has their shortcomings and their moments of flirting with being as overbearing and as questionably ethical as Microsoft was in the 90s, but they make some of the most enjoyable gadgets you can find. That’s what brought me into the Apple camp to begin with – products that were well designed and a joy to use. That they were the underdogs in the tech industry was just icing on the cake. In the tablet space, Android may be the underdog, but it’s not as enjoyable to use as iOS. Desktop Linux may be intriguing and even superior to OS X in some ways, but it’s not as compelling of an overall experience for me as OS X. While I always enjoyed Apple being a smaller player in the technology industry, I see no reason to abandon using great products simply because they have grown to be the the most successful.

It’s always fun to root for the underdog, and, if I get a chance, I may still pick up an HP TouchPad for the sheer novelty of the product. I won’t rule out possibly owning a Kindle Fire or a Nook Tablet in the future, but Apple’s products still represent the perfect blend of form and function for me. The part of me that enjoys being in the minority will just have to suffice with bashing Twilight every chance I get.



Hack, Slash, Rinse and Repeat: Reviewing Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age: Origins was a throwback to Bioware’s history, shunning the faster-paced action of their science fiction universe in Mass Effect for a more deliberate and tactical experience. It was more reminiscent of their earlier RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The player was given great control over the appearance and personality of their silent protagonist. Combat, while realtime, was treated as a set of commands that were implemented as you needed them. It was a nice experience left somewhat marred by a drab color palette,  blocky character models, and a graphics engine that seemed more at home on the original XBox than a 360. All I hoped for in a sequel was more of the same with a new coat of paint. What Bioware released not only revamped the game’s visuals but also altered almost every aspect of the game experience.

What Lovely Horns You’ve Suddenly Grown

The first and most noticeable change from Origins to Dragon Age 2 is in the character models. Hair looks more natural, colors are more saturated, and curved lines in general are smoother, making for softer faces and more natural-looking clothing. Textures are also much more detailed and less muddy than the predecessor. In addition to visual refinements, players of the original game may be surprised to discover that the protagonist has a voice this time around. Taking a page from Bioware’s Mass Effect series, the main character comes supplied with both a surname (Hawke) and a voice. Personally, I like this change even if it does make the character a little less your own.

Character creation in Dragon Age: Origins

Character creation in Dragon Age 2

Beyond the visual refinements, character design has changed greatly from one game to the next. Returning characters and races look different. Elves are much more slender and have more pronounced eyes. Darkspawn are more skeletal in appearance. Not all dwarves have beards anymore, and the Qunari have transformed from tall humans to something straight out modern interpretations of Dante’s Inferno. (It turns out that there is an official explanation for the physical differences in the Qunari, if you’re interested.) In fact, if you have a specific party member with you when you meet a certain royal heir from the first game, she’ll say to him, “You look different;” to which he’ll quip, “Don’t we all?”

Qunari, old and new. Notice any differences?

It took some getting used to, but I ended up liking the visual overhaul the characters received. More than simply cleaning up their appearance, Bioware has given each race a unique look that sets them more apart in the game world. In Dragon Age: Origins, everyone looked human with variations. Now humans, elves, Qunari, and dwarves have distinctive qualities that reinforce their diverse backgrounds and cultures. As an aside, I missed being able to customize my companions’ gear. Yes, you can upgrade it, but their appearance will only change under specific conditions. Fortunately, most of them have pretty cool default appearances, and your main character’s armor is still completely customizable.

Meet the New Cave, Same As the Old Cave

Alongside the improved character models come richer and more detailed environments. Unfortunately, Bioware pulls a Mako here and recycles those environments over and over. Houses in Kirkwall tend to all have the same interiors. Underground passages in the city all look alike. Dungeons are identical to each other, and, most notoriously, every cave is the same. This isn’t like Oblivion where these caves are assembled in a variety of ways using similar tile sets. The similarities are more than superficial. Each and every cave in the game is the exact same cave – you just start in different places and have different parts blocked off.

I hope you like the view. You’re going to see it many times.

I don’t know if the recycled environments were to save space on the disc, to save development time, or a combination of both. Either way, it detracts from the overall experience. If it was a space issue, Bioware has released multi-disc games before, and the story breaks itself up in a way that would easily lend itself to spanning multiple discs. If time was the issue, then it’s a case for not rushing development. An otherwise engaging quest or storyline loses its suspension of disbelief the moment you walk into a cave that looks exactly like the one from your previous quest. It cheapens the experience.

Fast and Furious Combat

Anyone who’s played Origins will find screenshots of combat in Dragon Age 2 very familiar looking. Unlike its predecessor, though, Dragon Age 2 features true realtime combat with one-to-one correlation between button presses and actions. At the same time, you still have full control over your party, both by taking advantage of programmable tactics and by taking direct control by swapping characters, and you have a rich library of abilities, spells, and attacks to master. It’s every bit as in-depth of a system as Dragon Age: Origin’s, but it’s now paced much more quickly. Like any action-RPG, the battles can quickly devolve into furiously repetitive button mashing, but you will stay on your toes if you want to get the most out of your party’s abilities.

My only quibble with combat is that enemies attack in swarms. You can micromanage your party’s placement on the battlefield, but that work will suddenly be for nothing when the next wave of enemies appear out of thin air. Additionally, the variety of enemies is much smaller this time around. There is now only one variety of ogre and Darkspawn. Ash Wraiths are absent, and thugs in the street all seem like clones of each other. Like the repeated environments, the lack of enemy variety in the main quest can start to degrade the quality of the overall experience. Dragon Age 2 really is a case study of taking one step backwards with almost every step forward. Fortunately, the game pulls ahead in a couple key areas.

Story & Characters

I once read an RPG review that asked what a game would be like if the main characters weren’t setting out to save the world, if the action was contained to a single region instead of spanning continents, if the main goal was day-to-day survival. Dragon Age 2 crafts its story around that exact premise, and it makes for a very unique experience. Kirkwall is the only city you’ll encounter in the game, and the entire plot takes place within the city and in the directly surrounding environments. The story, while ending with world-impacting consequences, finds our hero just trying to survive, and your character gets caught up in larger events as the game progresses. The whole experience is very focused and tight, and the main storyline can be completed in just a few hours. Fortunately, true to Bioware form, there are dozens of side quests available that add to the story and make for a deeper experience. Also, the choices you make throughout the game will impact several key plot points, though they were more careful this time around to make sure all story branches meet the same basic conclusion.

As you progress through the story, you assemble a variety of party members. At first, I was disappointed that there was no stand out party member as in previous Bioware games – one who’s so eccentric and quick-witted you want to keep them in your party every mission. Then I realized that virtually every character fits that description. Every character is so well-written and so well-acted that no one character rises above the rest. The exception is Aveline. She’s no fun to have around. The other letdown is that one of the side quests in Act I introduces an amazing character who seems like they should be able to join your party, but they can’t.

You can always check your friendship/rivalry status with other characters in your party.

Of your party members, four are available as romance options, and gender closes no doors this time. Unlike Origins, the romances are much more scripted this time around and much harder to mess up once you’ve become involved with another character. That said, friendships can be difficult to manage, and it’s very possible to lose multiple party members as the game progresses. Some may even die as the plot progresses. If you’re morally consistant in your choices, it’s not tough. What you don’t want are characters who feel ambivalent toward you. Even if you develop strong rivalries with a couple party members, they’ll learn to respect you and stick around. Losing certain party members, however, can close off whole plot branches, so you want to take care of your team once you have them.

Details, Details, Details

There are a few other details that both add to and take away from Dragon Age 2’s overall appeal. Throughout the game are various fetch quests. They seem odd because you find the lost item first; then you suddenly know exactly where the recipient is. I don’t mind the fetch quests in themselves, just the nonsensical way they play out. Since the Chanter’s Board is heavily underutilized in this game, that may have been a logical place to acquire these quests. I don’t know how often I find a lost ring and then say, “I know exactly where to find the person looking for this.” It’s another one of those elements that shatters suspended disbelief.

On a positive note, leveling characters up is much more manageable. You have a number of skill trees to choose from, and you can clearly see how different skills relate to and unlock each other. Other inherent class skills (such as a rogue’s lock-pick ability) naturally improve as you add points to correlating attributes. It feels very streamlined compared to the previous game, but it doesn’t feel dumbed down. It’s a quality level system that doesn’t get bogged down in needless complexity. It’s yet another one of those small details that testifies of the care and craftsmanship Bioware puts into their games.


  • Rich character models and detailed environments.
  • A great, very focused storyline.
  • Wonderful characters and voice acting.
  • Fast-paced but deep combat system.
  • A good leveling system.


  • Reused enemies and environments.
  • Backwards fetch quests.
  • Randomly appearing waves in combat.
  • Less freedom than Origins.

The Demand of the Qun

Dragon Age 2 is a game that turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts. It’s easy to criticize parts of the game that feel rushed as well as the continually reused assets, but the good parts of the game ultimately outweigh the shortfalls. The writing and acting is as good as anything Bioware has produced, and the story remains tense and engaging right through to the end. While the game fails to live up to the potential set by its predecessor in some key ways, it surpasses the original in others. I recommend you give Dragon Age 2 a try, but it’s not for everyone. It took a while for the game to grow on me, but, once it did, I began enjoying it immensely. Whether or not you enjoy it will depend on how well you take to its strengths in comparison to its flaws. As far as I’m concerned, the shortcomings are superficial compared to the core strengths, but it won’t stop me from hoping that the inevitable Dragon Age 3 gets a little more TLC before being released.

Images in this post are from Moby Games and the Dragon Age Wiki.


Game Ratings & You

I hate to add fuel to a fire that should have never started, but the recent attacks on the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) have got me thinking of how much we seem to need protection from ourselves.

You see, this whole brouhaha launched when some content that some described as “sexually explicit” was discovered in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The fact that this material is only accessible on the PC version of the game (not the console versions) by means of hacking the application seems to be completely irrelevant. As a result of the mess, the ESRB changed Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to Adult Only (AO) from Mature (M). (More Info Here.)

The issue is being brought up again with Capcom’s stylish puzzle-shooter, Killer 7. Again, the same attorney, Mr. Jack Thompson, is behind the crusade, and he is appealing to his prior allies, Sen. Hilary Clinton and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, for support. The drive is to have Killer 7 changed from an M rating to AO. This time, Mr. Thomson takes things one step further and claims the ESRB should be dismantled if they do not submit to his requests. (Article Here.)

So, why do I seem to be taking the side of the ESRB and the video game publishers on this one? Am I not opposed to such material in entertainment media? Don’t I believe that children should be protected from such content? Well, of course I do, and that’s why I say buyers should look at the label and see it is already rated M for Mature.

It’s very simple, M in the video game world is the equivalent on an R rating in the movie world, and R-rated movies with content much more explicit and disturbing are created and available in normal retail stores. We all know what an R rating means. Despite this, I know of people who won’t let their children watch a movie if it’s rated PG-13, yet these same children have several M-rated video games.

It all comes down to being responsible consumers. Game ratings will not change the content in video games any more than movie ratings have helped movies become more wholesome and moral over the last couple decades. We parents have to become more informed about what content is in the games, and the way to do this is easy: Flip over the box, and read why the game is rated what it’s rated.

For example, Katamari Damacy is rated E (for “Everyone”), and it is qualified with “Mild Fantasy Violence.” Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is rated T (for “Teen”), and its content includes “Blood,” “Suggestive Themes,” and “Violence.” Now let’s take Killer 7, which is rated M for “Blood and Gore,” “Intense Violence,” “Sexual Themes,” and “Strong Language.” Based off of those descriptions alone, do you think it is possible to make responsible buying decisions for your family? I do.

Of course, this brings up a whole slew of other issues. One issue is consistany. If we are to be this strict on the gaming industry, why has explicit material become so common on TV and in movies. After all, Jennifer Garner is allowed to run around in fetish costumes in Alias during prime time with but a TV14 rating while nudity is becoming more and more common in PG-13 movies, and don’t tell me that Desperate Housewives has no sexual content.

Another issue is that of built-in content versus mods and add-ons. This same Jack Thompson alleged that EA’s The Sims titles should be changed to an M rating from T because one can download nude skins for the characters off of the Internet. EA neither creates or endorses this material, but those facts seem to be trivial.

Mr. Thompson, the solution is not to dismantle the only industry watchdog. The answer is in responsible, informed consumerism on the part of parents and caregivers – unless I’m solving the wrong problem. If the problem is trying to figure out how to gain more media and political attention, then you have found a topic that will get you that attention.