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Boxer

Time to go retro

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Things have been a little dry on the gaming front. If you’re currently a little bored, waiting for a few releases later this year and are starting to show a little grey hair – I may just have a solution for you.

Boxer

Haul out your old original games (yes, I realise some of them may be on 5 1/4″ or 3 1/2″ disks) pop them into your CD-ROM drive, drag them onto the Boxer import screen and you’re good to go.

If you’ve lost your original disks, you can always head over to abandonware and download a copy. They’ve been good enough to keep a backup for you, for just such an eventuality.

There is just so much to choose from. Over the past few weeks I started and completed classics like: Space Quest 1, Monkey Island 1, Monkey Island 2, Police Quest 1, Prince of Persia, Rogue, Montezuma’s Revenge, The Lost Vikings, Dune 2, the list goes on. If I’m totally honest, I haven’t really finished them all yet. Games were hard back then !

The cherry on top for me was finding an original Roland MT-32 sound module on Gumtree.

Roland MT-32

I’d heard about these when I was playing these games on my old 286/386/486 back in the day, but no-one that I knew owned one. In fact in the USA they were selling for $550. I vaguely recall what the games sounded like on the PC speaker and later on my Creative Labs Sound Blaster Pro, but the first time I fired up Monkey Island 2 on the Roland, I was blown away. This is what the games were supposed to sound like back then. It’s almost worth playing all these games just to listen to the soundtracks you were missing out on.

I realise that finding one of these babies is easier said than done, so our good friend Alun Bestor (the developer of Boxer) has included MT-32 emulation into the app. All you need to do is download the MT-32 ROM’s (which some kind folks out on the Intertubes have made available) and you’re like 90% there. I have told myself that there is no way that emulation can be as good as the well aged black box on my desk.

As the ARS review says, “the only ugly thing about Boxer is not using it.”

iOS vs. Android

10 Things I hate about you

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Most people would argue that I’m probably not the best person to write this article as I’m simply not capable of being impartial or objective when it comes to all things Apple. I may have drunk the Kool-Aid, but I’d choose a non-Apple device if I was presented with an alternative that did the job better.
iOS vs. Android

It’s the little things those guys at No. 1 Infinite Loop do that make all the difference.

Some people are trying very hard to convince me to make the move from the iPhone to a device that runs Android. They have supplied me with a Google Nexus One running Android 2.2. Not the newest, shiniest Android phone, but it apparently still does a pretty decent job of showing off the operating system. Some of the criticism I list below is of the device itself and not of Android. I’m sure that later models of Android phones probably address some of these issues.

My top 10 things that will make me go back to my iPhone at the end of the month:

1 – The touch screen isn’t great. It’s not terrible either, but I’ve been using an iPhone since the original 2G came out and I’m used to Apple somehow figuring out exactly what I was trying to push on the screen. I found myself cursing out loud on a number of occasions after repeatedly not being able to tap the link or button I was aiming for.

2 – Global search, or rather lack there of. It’s something I use frequently on my iPhone. If someone sent me an email or text message or if I think I’ve saved something in a note, but I’m not sure, I can use the iPhone’s search function to search the contents of any and all applications on my phone for a keyword. On Android it is limited to looking things up in the contacts database and on the Interweb. I would have though that Android would excel at this, with Google knowing a thing or two about search.

3 – Sometimes there are just too many taps or options to do basic things. Like after installing Skype every time you want to dial a number another dialogue box pops up asking if you would like to use the phones dialer or Skype Out. I’m not debating that it is a cool feature, but it makes dialing painful. Even an option just to turn it on or off would be great.

4 – You can’t adjust the audio volume from the supplied earphones. Ridiculous I know, but super frustrating if you listen to a lot of music on your mobile phone.

5 – If you’re listening to a song and you like it, but you don’t know what it is, you have to go into the music application (you could also use the widget or notification bar I guess) to see what is playing. On the iPhone you just tap the sleep button and you are shown the current songs album art with song and album name. And no, “Car Home” is not a solution. I definitely don’t want to launch an application to change the way I interface with the phone every time I get into a car.

6 – Following on from this, there are no on screen music controls while the phone is locked. This is super annoying when you’re driving and you’re playing music from the device into the cars head unit. Again, you need to unlock the phone and go into the music application to change tracks.

7 – The battery life of the device is shorter than my iPhone. I can’t make it to the end of the day without charging it. I’m a pretty heavy data user so I generally have quite a few apps running in the background and I have most of the services set to synchronise automatically, but I’m not using any services that I don’t use on my iPhone. Push notifications and the limited ability of the iPhone to multi-task is what makes the difference.

8 – This one may be a little unfair as Apple don’t make it easy, but I feel there are enough people in the world that use iTunes to organise, buy and listen to music that there should be an out of the box mechanism to synchronise your music. I found DoubleTwist which does a decent job of getting your music onto the device, but it is cumbersome having to load an additional application to get your music onto it.

9 – Copy and paste. I didn’t know how much I needed it until I got it on the iPhone. Copy and paste on the device is functional, but it’s rather unpleasant to use. On the iPhone it’s almost as intuitive as using a mouse.

10 – Wifi configuration for enterprise and corporate networks is significantly more complex then on the iPhone. I’m not sure how Apple get it right on the iPhone (and in Mac OS X), but all I need to select is “WPA 2 Enterprise”, enter my credentials and it figures out the rest. On the Android device (and on a PC running windows) you need to know your “EAP method”, “Phase 2 authentication”, some other stuff and your credentials.

Now some of these may seem ridiculous, but when it comes to everyday use, the iPhone is a far superior experience when it comes to user friendliness of the user interface.

I do feel that I also need to mention a few things that I really like about Android and where I think Apple could take some direction:

1 – Social media integration on Android is fantastic. Having a view on all the services someone makes use of right in the contacts application is really useful. Media sharing also provides a host of options other than just the Google services.

2 – Dragging the unified notifications bar down from the top of the screen is a great way to get a quick view of all the activity on the phone, especially if you’ve been away from it for a while.

If anyone feels that I’m being unfair to Android because of the Nexus One, please feel free to supply me a device that performs better and I’ll gladly review it and post and update to this article.

A journey back to the land of Windows

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It had been just over two years since I had had the (dis)pleasure of booting a Microsoft operating system. Two weeks ago I decided to see what all the fuss was about with Windows 7 and at the same time take a look at Parallels 5 Desktop for Mac. I hadn’t used Parallel’s since version 3 and I’d heard good things about it as well. Two birds with one stone.

And while I was at it, I figured I’d give Office 2010 and Visio 2010 a go as well. Certain sites that I make regular use of were developed by folks that haven’t heard of things like standards and W3C so I often find myself having to log onto a terminal server just to access information or open documents.

After downloading all the relevant installation files and obtaining all the appropriate license keys, I was ready to go.

The Parallel’s installation went off without a hitch and was super quick. Pretty unobtrusive and what I expected.

ParallelsDesktop5forMac.jpeg

I fired up Parallel’s for the first time and clicked on the button to install a new OS. I pointed it at my Windows 7 image and clicked next. It recognised it as a Windows 7 image and pretty much did everything else on it’s own. I gave the OS access to only one of my CPU cores and 2048GB of RAM. I also chose not to have any integration between Mac OS X and Windows as I would be uninstalling before the trial expired.

I couldn’t believe how quick the Windows 7 install was. I run the VM on an external LaCie 7200rpm disk connected with firewire 800, but even so, the installation was nothing like what I was used to with XP (I never installed or used Vista, so I have no idea what that installation process was like). I logged in for the first time, it did some stuff and was raring to go. First thing I did was take a snapshot, just in case I ended installing something that blatted my VM or I decided I wanted to go back to a clean install.

I played around with IE and some of the other apps that come bundled with Windows 7 and was very happy with the performance inside my VM. Considering that I gave it access to a fair amount of resources I was very happy that it wasn’t bringing my system to it’s knees.

Next I installed Office 2010 Beta and Visio 2010. Also went off without a hitch, but did require a fair amount of downloading of additional components. Not the end of the world. After the installation I took another snapshot. Again, just in case I wanted to get back to a near clean install. I opened up a few Word and Excel documents, a few diagrams in Visio and set up Outlook to connect to our Exchange server, again all without any issues. One thing I did find rather annoying was that every time one of the applications encountered some new feature it would need to install an add on from the Interweb. I suppose some of this will go away once the product is out of beta.

I had now completed installing everything I wanted to try out and so far so good. The apps all seemed pretty light and very very responsive in my VM. The combination of Parallel’s 5 and Windows 7 was leagues ahead of where I was some two years ago with Parallel’s 3 and XP. In fact, if Parallel’s runs a special anytime soon or gives me a big discount on upgrading from 3 to 5 I may actually consider leaving it installed for the odd occasion I needed to access a Terminal server. The prospect of keeping it patched and anti-virused and anti-malwared really doesn’t excite me, but I can always just revert to a snapshot if something bad happens.

I’m not really sure what all the fuss around Windows 7 is. It looks OK, but there isn’t really anything that jumps out at me as a killer feature. I guess it’s not XP or Vista and is apparently stable as a primary operating system. Maybe I’m just used to that with Mac OS X and FreeBSD ?

As an aside I’ve been playing with VMWare 3 as well, albeit not with Windows 7, but I really think that Parallel’s have taken it to the next level.

I’ll post any new revelations here as I come across them.

GTA: Chinatown Wars

GTA for the iPhone

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It was inevitable. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was released earlier this week for the iPhone. The was ported from the Nintendo DS and PSP version by the Rockstar Games folk on Leeds. Although I haven’t played the other two versions, the game is apparently almost identical. It is available from the iTunes store for £5.99 and carries a mature/17 rating for the swearing, sex and violence that is necessary in any GTA game.

GTA: Chinatown Wars

My only notable experience with GTA in the past was with GTA IV on the Xbox 360, so I was sure I knew what I was in for. The story centers around a young Triad on his way to Liberty City to deliver a sword to his uncle Kenny after the death of his father. Of course things go horribly wrong from the minute that Huang sets foot on Liberty City soil.

Gameplay consists of missions and minigames that progress you through the story and build up stockpile of cash. For the most part you’ll be chasing after thugs and gang members that are invading your families turf and letting them have a one on one chat with the biggest gun you have in your arsenal. You’ll also be running from the fuzz and running over unsuspecting pedestrians. If you’re not fast enough you’ll end up in the slammer.

So far the game has been pretty engrossing and the story moves at a decent pace. My only complaint is around the control system, not so much when you’re on foot, but when you’re driving around. Maybe I’m trying a little to hard not run over the old ladies, or maybe my fingers are just to big but I not getting the hang of it.

The sound and graphics are also very impressive. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the graphics push the iPhone 3GS’ CPU to the max.

It’s one the first games available on the iPhone platform that has real substance as far as a story goes and is welcome addition to the App Store. Hopefully also a sign of things to come from Rockstar. The more mainstream developers that work on the platform the better for all of us.

It’s definitely worth the £5.99 and will provide you weeks of entertainment. My only warning is that it definitely chews your battery, so make sure that you some juice nearby.

Commodore 64 emulator for the iPhone

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(7/10)

C64-icon.pngAfter some initial hiccups with getting (and keeping) the application in the iTunes App Store, Manomio are back with C64 (iTunes link) and 8 free games.

At first you may find yourself questioning your sanity, but after dropping £2.99 in the iTunes store and playing one of the old classics, you’ll be pulled right back to you gaming roots.

Now maybe it was just because I was stuck on a two hour flight and had nothing else to do after I had finished reading my Stuff Magazine, but after playing Dragons Den for 10 minutes, I just couldn’t stop. It was clear that my life depended on me getting to the next level. I had my headphones plugged in and turned up loud to allow the 8 bit beeps and boops to be enjoyed at their optimum monaural magnificence. The people on either side of me clearly thinking that there was a crazy man bashing some ancient technology with his thumbs about to go postal on the flight.

The control system allows for a joystick and a single button – that is all we needed back in the day. You can also orientate the the phone in portrait or landscape to either have a view of said button and joystick or not. Playing the game fullscreen in landscape was my choice as the additional screen real estate made everything that much bigger. The only problem is that with this orientation your thumbs can block out some of the graphics. Nothing serious though.

The emulator is responsive and tracks your finger movements for the joystick and copious amounts of button mashing pretty well. I’d give the app a higher rating, but at the moment the games library is a little limited. When they release more content and they say they will, there is a change that this little gem could deserve an 8 or maybe even a nine.

C64-screen.jpgIf you can still remember loading games on that beige C64 tape drive and waiting hours just to get to the good part, you’ll love how your old favourites now load instantly !

Check out the video below to see what you’re missing out on.

Plex and the ultimate media center setup

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(10/10)

I’ve been using XBMC on my old Xbox as a media center for a few years now and it has served me well. In fact, it is still serving me well, but it doesn’t have the horsepower to get HD content onto my TV. It also doesn’t have some of the features that I’m after in a media center.

Plex for Mac

Plex for Mac

Some time ago I started playing with the free app Plex (Plex was born out of XBMC) on my iMac at home and I was very impressed with what it could do. The only problem was that my iMac was nowhere near my TV and it is used for all sorts of things other than watching movies or listening to music.

I lost interest in the application as I didn’t see a way to integrate it with my existing media setup. I was sad to see it go as the interface was really slick, it worked with the Apple remote (it actually doesn’t work with the mouse at all 🙂 and it was exceptionally good at going to sites like imdb.com and tv.com to fetch movie posters, box art, plot outlines and theme music.


I’m now in the process of putting together a new setup which I think is the ultimate combination of features and cost.

An older Mac mini

An older Mac mini

You can pick up an older Mac mini with the appropriate video adapter for a pretty decent price and it will easily deliver the goodness I’m after (just make sure that it has at least a 1.8Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo if you want HD). It will run Mac OS X and will boot straight into Plex. I’ll use an Apple remote (with a view to upgrade to a Logitech Harmony at some point) to control the whole setup, with the option to use a wireless keyboard and mouse if I need to hop onto the Internet or use iTunes. I use my iMac as a NAS (it has Terabytes of external firewire storage courtesy of Lacie) so all I’ll have to do is point the Plex at my “Movies”, “TV Series” and “Music” shares and it will do the rest. Depending on the size of your media library it will take some time for Plex to go and fetch all the stuff it needs from the Internet to populate its database with the relevant text, images and sound and then you’re set. Sit back on the couch and enjoy.

Logitech Harmony

Logitech Harmony


Whenever you add something to your media library, Plex automatically detects it and goes and fetches everything it needs. For TV shows it automatically sorts everything into seasons, it keeps track of what you’ve already watched and plays the theme music in the background while you’re choosing and episode.

Plex also has plug-ins for just about every decent media service on the Internet: Hulu, TED, BBC iPlayer, Youtube, Flickr and iPhoto, just to name few. So even if you don’t have your own media on a local server, you have access to hours of entertainment at your fingertips.

 

It almost seems to easy, but with the initial testing I’ve done and reports from other people on the Internet, I’m confident that it will be money well spent and will see me well into the future.

 

Plex showing you everything you need to know about BSG

Plex showing you everything you need to know about BSG

Protect your iPhone

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(9/10)

I’ve never really been a fan of cell phone covers or cases. Usually because you end up compromising on the functionality of your device or you end up doubling its size. My 2G iPhone ended up looking like a expensive German bathroom fitting that had been attacked by a child with an angle grinder. Not a pretty site, but I never saw a cover that appealed to me. Mind you, I wasn’t really trying very hard to find one.

I was determined not to let my shiny new iPhone 3GS suffer the same fate. I saw a few covers that didn’t look too bad and decided to head out on a Saturday morning to pick one up. I was quickly reminded why doing your own research online and then ordering from an e-tailer is always the best option. All the staff in all the stores I went to were completely useless. I was really impressed with how little they knew about the products they had for sale in their respective stores.

In the last store I visited (why is it always the last store you go to ???) I finally found something that I liked. A little surprising as the cover was completely different to what I originally had in mind for my 3GS. As soon as I saw it I got flashbacks of Portal. It was brilliant white with grey buttons and hugged my iPhone like they were made for each other – which they obviously were.

They iPhone Candyshell from Speck

They iPhone Candyshell from Speck

The Candyshell from Speck is a little pricey compared to some of the other covers that are available, coming in at around R350 depending on where you shop. It also comes with a screen protector (and a great little cloth to polish the screen before you apply it) which a lot of the other covers don’t have, not that they are expensive, but it’s great that I only had to buy a single product.

My 3GS now feels almost indestructible. The rubberised edges also give you that extra sense of security when you put it down on a hard surface or drop it. You can access all the buttons and the dock connector without any issues and the camera isn’t obstructed at all. I’ve also had zero issues with the phone overheating with the cover on.

If you love your iPhone and I know you do, buy it this cover and it will be with you till your next upgrade and beyond.

Borderlands – conquer it with your friends

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(7/10)

I’m still not sure about Borderlands. I can’t really fault the game. The graphics are great, it makes me laugh and it’s built from the ground up for online co-op. It walks a fine line between a FPS and RPG, probably my two favorite genres, but there still just seems to be something missing. I’m probably only about 25% of the way through the game, almost all of which has been done with at least one buddy in co-op, but I haven’t had that, “I must lock myself in the house and play this until the neighbors complain about the smell” feeling.

borderlands-box

The story is also pretty cool. You are searching for a mythical vault that is packed with alien technology and secrets. I mean, who wouldn’t want to find that ! As with most RPG’s, you start off with miserable stats, miserable weapons, miserable everything really. You progress through the first 15 levels is pretty quick and if you spend your money wisely you can amass a fairly decent arsenal especially if you get lucky with one of the “daily specials” at the vending machines.

borderlands-crew

If I had my life over, I would probably wait to pick it up second hand, it is however a great way spend all night chatting to your buddies and making alien heads explode with your sniper rifle. Doesn’t really get much better than that.

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