Rumor Mill: PS3 2.0?

By Mike on 7:07 pm

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During my surfings, I stumbled upon a rumor about PS3 firmware 2.0. It was first reported on October 12th so I'm a bit off the ball, but hey, I'm not a professional journalist, so don't expect things to be instant.

Anyway, looks like 2.0 is going to address some of my complaints with the PS3, including PSP features that it lacks. RSS 2.0 is one such feature. I like it since I can stream live audio. I do this with my PSP a lot using RSS Streaming Tools. I can hook my XM into my PC in the den and listen to broadcasts anywhere in the house. Better than wireless headphones since there's no noise. Of course that's not all. I'm not going to talk about it though until it comes out.

If this rumor is true, when can we expect Firmware 2.0? Some reports say today (October 30th). Sony just released 1.94 with Rachet and Clank to give Dualshock 3 support. According to the PS3 update service, there are no updates as of now, 7:00 pm EST. 1.93 is the latest available online. If 2.0 is coming soon, expect it on November 2nd or 3rd. That's the date the 40gb PS3 is out. I expect it will be the initial firmware for the 40gb. Where do I base that? Well, PSP 3.70 was released the day after the Slim was released. Also, under video, one of the supposed updates allows for the use of USB memory card readers on "certain models". The 40gb is the only model without a built in memory card reader.

According to PSU, the following updates are expected.

- Users

* You can now password-protect user accounts.

- Settings

* [Dynamic Normalizer] has been added as an option under [Sound Settings].
* [Energy Saver] has been added as an option.
* [Equalizer] has been added as a feature under [Music Settings].
* [Full] has been added as an option for [DVD Wide Display] under [BD / DVD Settings].
* [Photo Settings] has been added as an option.
* [PS / PS2 Settings] has been added as an option.
* [RSS Channel Settings] has been added as an option.
* [Sample Rate] has been added to [Audio CD Import] under [Music Settings].
* [Screen Saver] has been expanded under [Display Settings].
* The method of selecting an output resolution has been changed in [Video Output Settings] under [Display Settings].
* [Theme Settings] has been added as an option.
* [Zero Unused Disk Space] has been added as an option under [System Settings] > [Format Utility].

- Photo

* Additional slideshows have been added.
* [Photo Effects] have been added as a feature.
* Wallpaper feature has been added.
* [Zoom] has been added as a feature.

- Music

* Additional visualizations have been added.
* CD information can now be entered.
* Three-speed fast forward and fast reverse has been added as a feature.

- Video

* Files can now be played sequentially.
* Three-speed fast forward and fast reverse has been added as a feature.
* You can now select [Zoom] under [Screen Mode] when playing video files saved on the hard disk or storage media.
*An appropriate USB adapter (not included) is required to use storage media with some models.

- Game

* Support for PlayStation 3 format software titles has been expanded (PS3 will support more PS3 titles? An engineering marvel!)
* XMB (XrossMediaBar) is now accessible during gameplay.

- Network

* [RSS Channel] has been added as a feature.

- Friends

* You can now have multiple chat sessions.
* You can now select an image to use as your Avatar from [Photo].

- Other

* Date & Time is now shown when the PS button is pressed.
* File sorting has been changed.
* [Help] has been added as a feature.
* Playability status with the PS3 system has changed for some PlayStation and PlayStation 2 format titles.
* [Secure Delete] has been added as an option.
* Some PlayStation Network features have been revised.

The list is truly impressive and includes some badly needed updates. Lack of some of these features has severely limited the PS3. Hopefully, this will be out soon.

PS3: Week Two

By Mike on 6:50 pm

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Second week with the PS3 with an update on gaming and HD playback. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any Bluray videos for rent at my local video store. I was told "not to hold my breath" for BD and HD-DVD content to come in. With the format war between the two standards, it makes little sense to stock titles, since they don't want to get stuck with movies they can't rent out. I went to HMV and picked up Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam War film, well known as one of the best Vietnam films out there. Full Metal Jacket was filmed using 35mm stock, which is standard. It was released in the 80s so the quality is not as high as more modern films. HD playback however delivers something closer to the theater experience than DVD does. You'll notice film grain in older movies, which is evident in FMJ. The PS3 does position itself well as one of the leading Bluray players on the market. I tried the movie in both 720p and 1080i using my computer monitor (HDMI-DVI) and my HDTV (component video). Both looked good. You do not need an HDCP compatible TV to play movies in these resolutions. It's only required to play movies at 1080p. My HDTV is 768p (1080i compatible) maximum resolution and my monitor is 900p. Unfortunately, my monitor cannot handle interlacing so the video did not look as good due to the fact that LCD displays by nature look best at their native resolution. The PS3 is only capable of outputting NTSC/PAL, EDTV, and HDTV resolutions, not VGA ones, which is unfortunate.
Audio quality is also better than regular DVD, up to 640kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 for FMJ . The stereo system in my den is quite old and only offers analogue RCA connectivity, so I didn't get to enjoy the full surround sound effect. The TV in our living room has a 5.1 system but it is not an HDTV. Our HDTV is in a bedroom and uses it's own built in speakers, which are no good for HD audio.

One of the big problems with the PS3 is lack of games, and also game pricing. Interestingly, the Sony Store sells games at $60 each, and sometimes cheaper. Major retailers however sell them for as much as $70. I should note that Sony is directly selling their games for the CORRECT price. Major American retailers are selling their games for $60, while their Canadian counterparts are selling them for $10 more. With the dollar the way it is, the games should cost the same, so Canadian retailers are overcharging. If you want to buy PS3 games, buy them from the Sony Store.
While on the subject of games, there one problem with the PS3 is still a lack of quality titles. The problem is supposedly that the Cell is difficult to program for. However, there aren't a large number of Wii titles yet either so I wouldn't be too concerned. Rachet and Clank and the Simpsons Game should ramp things up for Christmas being less serious, fun titles.
BD also has the same problem. There is a lack of quality movies available on BD, and HD-DVD as well. The studios are directly at fault for backing only one format over the other rather than releasing movies on both, which makes more sense.

One last PS3 thought. The 40gb model is coming out next week. I changed my mind about it. I would avoid this model until more PS3 games are available. Buy the PS2 instead if you don't already own one. Lack of backwards compatibility combined with lack of PS3 games make this console not a lot of bang for the buck. The 60gb model with full hardware BC is still the best choice for non-PS2 owners, while the 80gb has been going on sale lately and can be picked up for around $500 in some cases.

OS X Leopard: First Impressions

By Mike on 7:31 pm

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Ok, so Leopard arrived today as expected. Opened it up, popped in the DVD, and installed the new OS. The upgrade is pretty strait forward. No need to reformat. It does take quite a while though. At least a couple of hours on my laptop. Mine is a 12'' 1.33ghz iBook G4 that was bought in 2005. I don't consider it old but the new MacBooks have far surpassed it.
Once it's installed, it then goes to work indexing your files for spotlight. It does this in the background but using a lot of system resources to do this, so it's best just to wait until it's finished.

One of the first things I noticed was how much of a memory hog Leopard is. Once again, eye candy is to blame. I originally had 768mb of ram inside my laptop but I found it was getting eaten up quickly. I swapped it for a 512mb chip in my parent's laptop. They can live with 256mb less memory for now since it's just a surfing/email box. Leopard runs far better on 1gb. 512mb is the minimum but you really do need more than that. I found a 512mb DDR-3200 SODIMM chip form TigerDirect for $35 so upgrading is no issue.
Another issue is a mysterious 6gb HDD space loss between Tiger and Leopard. I had about 15gb on my HDD before install and after I only had 8.5gb. I'm a little perplexed at where so much space went. Leopard does need at least 9gb of free space compared to Tiger's 4gb, but I'm not sure what the extra space is needed for. It may be worth upgrading to a bigger HDD. Mine is only 40gb, which is small these days. My particular model uses a 4200rpm drive, which are no longer sold. The issue for me of course would be finding a faster drive with the same low power consumption so as not to sacrifice battery life, which is a major factor for me. Apple also does not make it easy to upgrade the drive. It requires a complex process of taking the whole thing apart. Since I need my laptop, it's one of the few devices I don't want to tinker with.

Improvements to Leopard? Well, it does look nice. One of the biggest improvements is the document preview feature known as Quick Look, which allows you to see a thumbnail of the document or photo without opening it. Stacks is also handy. Added to the dock, stacks allows quick access to files in frequently used folders. Another thing is Spaces. If you're familiar with Linux, you'll be familiar with spaces. It allows for multiple desktops, up to four.
Time Machine is also an interesting feature. It's a backup program for your Mac. It does backups to a separate disk, and allows you to view previous versions of your Mac. I kept this turned off since I use a laptop and I use my portable HDD for other things. More things included are Front Row, which is prepackaged with OS X now.
Boot Camp is also now prepackaged with OS X. This is the final version, not the beta that was available on the website. For those who don't know, Boot Camp allows Intel based Macs to run Windows XP or Vista. This allows you to run Windows and Mac software on a single system. Since my Mac is PowerPC based, I can't use this feature.
As for the rest of the programs, Apple has provided updated versions of everything. Mail now includes a RSS and note taking feature. A new program called Photo Booth allows for some basic image editing in a fun snapshot, mall photo booth style format.

Leopard is an interesting update to OS X, though it does not feature as much exciting new stuff as Tiger did when it first came out. If you're still using Tiger, there's no rush to go out and get Leopard. That said, it's a solid OS. Of course today is Friday. The real test will be going back to work on Monday and putting through it's paces.

The Best Star Wars Games: Part 2

By Mike on 11:05 pm

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Part two, and two more games to cover. This time, Empire at War and Jedi Outcast

Empire at War (2006, PC/Mac)
Empire at War is a Star Wars real time strategy game. It's certainly not the first. There were others such as Rebellion, but they were not nearly as good. EaW, as it is known, is different. This game is the first played on a truly galactic scale. You play as either the Empire or the Rebellion. It takes place before the Battle of Yavin though is still set in the original trilogy era. No clone wars stuff here. The game does have a story mode, but it also has a galactic conquest mode and skirmish mode. Galactic conquest allows you to conquer the galaxy as you see fit, without following any particular story arc. Skirmish allows you to play individual maps and has no set goals other than to obliterate the enemy. Unlike other Star Wars RTS games, this was the first that allowed you to fight in space, rather than just on land. Space combat is the strongest aspect of the game. All the ships in the movies are there. Some Clone Wars era ships are there too such as the Acclamator Assualt Ship and the Victory Star Destroyer for the Empire. Land battles add AT-ATs, T2B tanks, Stormtroopers, Rebel Plex troops, etc to the mix. I felt the land combat was a little weaker than the space experience but interesting none the less, and somewhat more challenging. Hero units are also available such as Vader and Han Solo. One limiting factor is the small number of units you can place on a map at one time. Only 9 at a time. Fan mods allow both teams to deploy more, making for more epic battles.
In the Fall of 2006, LucasArts released the Forces of Corruption Expansion. FoC is actually a stand alone expansion but requires EaW to run. It added the Zann Consortium to the list of playable sides. The Consortium is an organized crime group. Tyber Zann, the main character, is out to get revenge on Jabba the Hutt, as well as steal the Empires secrets to sell them. FoC takes place after Hoth and added a slew of new units such as the TIE Defender, B-Wing, Dark Troopers, and even the Death Star II. The Death Star I was in the original EaW but could only destroy planets. The Death Star II can be deployed on a map to destroy enemy capital ships in a single shot, as well as take out planets. The Zann Consortium gets its own list of unique units of Mandalorian design such as the StarViper, Canderous Assault tank, and Ewok Handlers. The latter released Ewoks with bombs strapped to them. Obviously a joke directed at the hatred of Ewoks by hardcore Star Wars fans. The Story in FoC is also more interesting and well developed.
Empire at War completely revived the Star Wars RTS genre. Aside from that, it's open XML architecture allows it to be endlessly modded. A lot of moders have added a whole range of new units which can really make for interesting combat. That's what makes it one of the best.

Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (2002, PC/Mac/Xbox)
Kyle Katarn has become the Chuck Norris of Star Wars. The merc with the beard who's just a guy with a lightsaber and a few questions. Kyle was introduced in Dark Forces, then became a Jedi in Jedi Knight. In Outcast, Kyle has left the order after an all to close brush with the dark side and has decided to once again pursue his mercenary career. The first two levels of the game, Kejim and Artus Prime, are pretty much identical in terms of game play to the original Dark Forces. At the beginning, Kyle is with is trusty side kick Jan Ors. He has none of the force abilities he learned in Jedi Knight, so you're basically starting from square one. However, by the end of the second level, Jan is captured and presumed killed by dark Jedi Desann. Kyle returns to the Vally of the Jedi from the first game to replenish his force ability to get revenge on the dark Jedi. The game also unveils a plot by the Empire Reborn to infuse non-Jedi with the force and create the ultimate soldier. The story of the game itself is a tie in with "The Crystal Star", a novel released in 1994. However, the connection is not explicit.
Once you get your force powers, and more importantly, your lightsaber, the game takes a new direction. You can now fight as a Jedi. Saber fighting is much more detailed than before giving you the ability to better control the blade and perform acrobatics. The game's story is also fairly strong though not like the first Jedi Knight. It also lacks the FMV of the first. However, the vastly improved game play and graphics more than compensate for this. Voice acting is well done and Billy Dee Williams even makes an appearance reprises his role as Lando.
Of course, we can't talk about the game without mentioning it's sequel, Jedi Academy. It's very similar to Outcast and you'll find yourself fighting almost the same enemies. The graphics are better though and it introduces a level selection system rather than a linear story. You also do not play as Kyle buy as Jayden Korr, who can either be male or female and several different species. You can play as Human, Rodian, Twi'lek, Zabrak or Kel Dor. The sequel did improve on saber fighting with more advanced acrobatics. You can also wield the infamous double bladed lightsaber later in the game, or fight Jar'Kai style (one lightsaber in each hand).

PS3 Week 1: Thoughts

By Mike on 7:49 pm

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Looking at the first week with the PS3. Ran into some snags. Most notably, I received this week's flyer from the well known electronics store where I bought the system. They had reduced the price $100 due to the high Canadian dollar. Fortunately, I was able to get $114 cash back on the system without any hassle. Today I decided to try the HDMI interface, so I went and bought a DVI to HDMI adapter to hook it up to my 900p computer monitor. The digital connection looks excellent. Fortunately, the PS3 does not force you to use the HDMI interface for audio so I was able to hook it up to my old stereo through the two RCA analogue connectors on the original AV cable. Also fortunate is that the PS3 will upscale DRMed DVDs over DVI-D to HDMI interface. Upscaled DVDs look good on a regular computer monitor. Some screens are HDCP DRM compatible now so if you have a 1200p monitor, you should be able to play BluRay at 1080p over HDMI-HDMI. Everyone else is limited to 1080i. This scheme is little more than a ploy to get people to buy new TVs. BluRay should output to 720p and 1080i without an HDCP compatible screen/TV. The vast majority of HDTV shows are 720p so most people won't care.

As for audio playback, I've noticed some problems. It seems the PSP has better audio codec support than it's bigger brother. I popped the memory card from my PSP in and it was unable to playback files encoded using MP4 AAC Low Complexity, using a variable bit rate. The PS3 itself can only rip CDs at fixed bit rates. Files that play fine in the PSP wouldn't play in the PS3. It's worth noting that these files aren't copy protected since I ripped them myself from CDs or encoded them from analogue sources. It could be that Nero Digital encoded them at non-standard bit rates, but if one Sony device can play them, why shouldn't another, newer one?

While on the subject of media, lets just say I had some headaches getting the media server feature working. This was on the Windows end though. Windows Media Player 11 wasn't coopering and kept crashing each time I tried to change the DNLA settings. It also wouldn't let me add files from my media drive. I used NeroMediaHome instead, which is also DNLA compliant and it worked like a charm. When streaming video, using a hard wired connection is highly recommended. The PS3's 802.11g 54mbps Wifi isn't fast enough for for SD and HD video streaming. Going the other way, the PS3 does a good job of streaming local video to the PSP, down-converting the resolution for you. I have yet to figure out how to download video from the PS3 onto the PSP yet. The PS3's remote play feature allows you to control the system via a PSP, though not all games support it.
On the subject of networking, I would have liked to see RSS 2.0 capability on the PS3, just like the PSP has. This feature can be used for live local streaming of audio using RSS Streaming Tools. It's unfortunate this wasn't added. Hopefully Sony will add it in a future firmware update.

On the whole, I believe the PS3 is a good system, though not as solid as Sony's own PSP. Sony could have added a lot more functionality on the media end. Hopefully firmware updates will allow it to support the same features it's little brother has.

Console Wars: September 2007

By Mike on 6:09 pm

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The Halo 3 juggernaut managed to knock the Wii off top spot. For the first time since it's release, the Wii dropped to second place in sales. According to market research firm NPD, Microsoft sold 527,000 Xbox 360s in September. Wii came close with 501,000 units. Once again, Playstation 3 was third, selling only 119,400 units. The PS2 is still outselling it's descendant, the aging console moved 215,000.
As for handhelds, the DS is till in the front with over 495,800 consoles sold. The slim and light PSP sold 284,500 units.

Microsoft's sales boost was primarily due to it's blockbuster game Halo 3. It took in $170 million on it's first day and $300 million in it's first week. It grossed more than any Hollywood movie for that period, which is making the studios a bit nervous. 3.3 million copies have been sold so far, with Wii Play trailing at second place in software sales with 282,000 copies.

One of the Wii's problems is it's ability to meet the demand. Wii sales will continue to weaken if Nintendo can't increase production. I have only seen the console for sale on the shelf once. Though the 360's hardware quality is inferior to the PS3, sales prove that the games still make or break a console. If Sony can't get some blockbuster tiles on the PS3 soon, sales will remain stagnated, no matter what price cuts they give.

The Best Star Wars Games: Part 1

By Mike on 6:31 pm

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I love the Star Wars movies. I also love Star Wars games. So for today, I thought I'd round off my top five Star Wars games, in no particular order. Ranking great Star Wars games are like ranking your kids, you just can't pick a favourite. For today, we'll look at KOTOR and TIE Fighter.

Knights of the Old Republic (2003, Xbox/PC/Mac)
KOTOR is perhaps the best Star Wars game ever made, period. It just has that timeless quality to it that so few games have, especially today. It's a role playing game, following the d20 system set forth in the original Wizards of the Coast Star Wars Role Playing Game. KOTOR was developed by Calgary based BioWare (who are well known for their RPGs) and first appeared in 2003 on the original Xbox, then in 2004 on Windows. Even if you have the Xbox version, buy the Windows one. It's worth it since the high definition graphics and surround sound add a great deal to the experience.
KOTOR is well known for being an epic game, much like the Zelda games are. Everything in it is big, and the game follows a powerful story. When the game begins, you get to customize your character. You select your class: soldier, scout, or scoundrel. You can then select sex and appearance. In Star Wars lore, your character is canonically male for this game. You can then customize further by selecting your character's name, attributes, skills, and feats. KOTOR is endlessly customizable. Like most RPGs, you gain experience points throughout the game which you can use to "level up" to a maximum of Level 20.
The story is an epic one. The game takes place 4000 years before A New Hope. You visit several worlds: Taris, Danooine, Tatooine, Kashyyyk, Manaan, Korriban, and Lehon. The goal is to uncover the location of a mysterious weapon fueled by dark side power.You begin on a ship called the Endar Spire, which is being attacked by the Sith over the planet Taris. The Endar Spire is the tutorial level. KOTOR does a good job at explaining how to play the game, in game, following the story. Once you escape from the Endar Spire, you and the ship's commander Carth Onasi crash land on Taris where you must search for the missing Jedi Bastila Shan. On your way, you add other characters to your party. There are nine NPCs in total. Carth of course is one of them. Later on, you add Bastila, Twi'lek street kid Mission Vao, Zalbaar her Wookie friend, Mandalorian bounty hunter Canderous Ordo, redeemed Cathar Jedi padawan Juhani, astromech droid T3-M4, grey Jedi Jolee Bindo, and the blood thirsty assassin droid HK-47. All NPCs are fully customizable and have their own special skills and classes. Later on in the game, some characters will have the ability to add and use force powers. They work in the same way as other Star Wars games, with a force meter. Combat is semi-automated. The computer controls the character unlike some other RPGs like Oblivion, where you do the fighting. However, you get to select which feat or force power your character will use in their attack. Combat is turn based, modified by your attributes. You can fight with melee weapons such as vibroswords and lightsabers (if your character is a force user) and ranged weapons such as blasters. There are hundreds of different weapons and armours to choose from. Some can even be upgraded at a workbench to make them stronger. Various grenades and mines can also be used in combat. Aside from that, there are various gloves, belts, headgear, portable shields, and cybernetic implants your character can use depending on their skills and attributes. Each provides a different bonus such as increasing dexterity, or allowing you to use stealth.
KOTOR is one of the few games out there that you can play over and over again and always find something new. It has strong replay value because of that, coupled with the excellent story. The graphics are stunning, even for today. KOTOR also has a strong musical score, which is 90-95% original, unlike many other Star Wars games which just recycle the music from the movies. As I said, it's probably the best Star Wars game to date.

KOTOR did spawn at least one sequel, known as The Sith Lords, which is worth talking about. It added some new game play features and is definitely worth looking at. The story takes place five years after the first game. In this game, your character is one of the Jedi who followed Revan from the first game to war. The Jedi was exiled from the order when she returned to face judgment. In TSL, your PC is canonically female but you can play as male. The plot surrounds around you lossing your connection to the Force and slowly rebuilding it as the game progresses. Unlike the first game, you can use force powers fairly early on, and there's more powers and feats to choose from. Your character classes are either Jedi Guardian, Jedi Sentinel, or Jedi Consular, which you select when you customize your character. T3, HK-47, Bastila, and Carth return in the game but only the two droids are party NPCs. A host of new NPCs include Jedi Master Kreia, smuggler Atton Rand, Zabrak mechanic Bao-Dur and his remote droid, dark Jedi Visas Marr, the mysterious droid G0-T0, bounty hunter Mira, evil Wookie slaver Hanharr, the disciple Mical, and the Handmaiden. Not all will join your party. You'll only get Mira if you're light side while Hanharr only joins dark side characters. Mical joins your party for female PCs while male ones get the Handmaiden. The game adds a new character building dimension by adding influence. Your actions and words can influence how your characters think of you, and also effect their light side/dark side alignment. Some of the NPCs can become either Jedi or Sith depending on your alignment and influence with them.
Weapons and armours have also changed somewhat. The Jedi and Sith robes in the game fit the style seen in the movies more. There's also a greater variety of armours and weapons to choose from. Lightsaber combat has improved by allowing you to learn up to seven saber forms: Shi-Cho, Soresu, Makashi, Shien, Ataru, Niman/Jar Kai, and Juyo. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Soresu and Shien are best for deflecting blaster fire, Shi-Cho and Niman are jack-of-all-trades forms, while Ataru and Juyo are aggressive melee forms, and Makashi is best against force wielding opponents. Like in the first game, weapons, armours, and lightsabers can be upgraded at a work bench. There's more upgrade options to choose from in TSL. You can also use a work bench or lab station to build upgrades, power-ups, and weapons out of components you find.
The games production values are not as good as the first game though due to time constraints put on the developers by LucasArts. The only major issue is a huge amount of content that had to be cut in order to meet the release deadline. There are significant plot holes in the game due to this. However, a lot of the cut content was included on the game CDs in raw form. Team Gizka, a group of modders, has been working on restoring the cut content through The Sith Lords Restoration Project. They are close to finishing but refuse to set a release date. You can check on their progress on YouTube. TSL was made by Obsidian rather than BioWare, who recommended them. The game is still pretty good and nearly matches the first KOTOR despite its flaws. It too has an original musical score and strong replay value. There are rumors about a KOTOR 3 is in the works. Developers and LucasArts aren't commenting, which is usually a good sign. In my opinion, it would be a great crime if LucasArts did not release a KotOR 3. The Sith Lords just left so many unanswered questions and cliff hangars in the same way Empire Strikes Back did for the original trilogy. It would be a great tragedy to never find out what happened to Revan and the Exile.

TIE Fighter (1994, PC/Mac)
It's rare that a sequel can live up to its original. That's especially true is the original set the bar high, as KOTOR did above. Back in the 1983, Atari released Star Wars, an arcade game which used vector graphics to mimic 3D flight. The goal was to pilot an X-Wing and destroy the Death Star. Ten years later, LucasArts released X-Wing, which brought the arcade game to home PC. It too had a mission to destroy the Death Star, but expanded it with more missions, three more craft, true 3D graphics, and free flight. The developer was Totally Games and the story was written by Lawrence Holland, who would work on the rest of the series. X-Wing had it's problems though. According to Gamespot, it was ridiculously hard. I agree. Even in invulnerability mode, the game is extremely difficult.
In 1994, the space sim genera changed with TIE Fighter. It was one of the first Star Wars games where you actually played as the bad guys. TIE Fighter is certainly easier than X-Wing, but not so easy as it were to be dull. Improvements included better graphics, a full 3D Combat MultiView Display (which actually tells you stuff unlike the X-Wing one), enhanced missions with primary, secondary, and secret goals, and a strong storyline. You get the full line of Imperial star fighters too. If you happen to be a Star Wars fleet junkie, you'd love TIE fighter since it offered a whole host of new ships, such as the infamous TIE Defender and Missile Boat. Aside from that, you get the standard fare such as the classic TIE Fighter, the TIE Bomber, the TIE Interceptor, the TIE Avenger (aka Advanced), and the Star Wing (aka Assault Gunboat). Each have their strengths and weaknesses. Unlike the Rebels, the first three craft don't even have shields or heavy armour to protect you. There's little margin for error. On top of that, you have to optimize your power settings.
The missions are well structured, ranging from defense of an outpost, escort, bombing, hit and run, etc. The briefings give you good descriptions and tips with full voice over. The game's story isn't what you'd expect. The Empire is never portrayed as evil. In fact, the Rebels are painted as terrorists in the game. Actually, you don't spend too much time fighting rebels. The gave adds new dimensions such as ending a civil war, fighting pirates, and even defeating a rouge Imperial admiral. The game has no weaknesses and it takes you back to a time when games were just fun. The original had an expansion pack, but most will be familiar with the 1995 Collectors edition which included the expansion.
TIE Fighter spawned two sequels. X-Wing vs TIE Fighter was a multiplayer game. It was essentially identical to TIE Fighter in mechanics, but added texture skins to the craft. It also added the improved cockpits to rebel craft. However, it lacked a story outside the brief Balance of Power expansion. It was geared towards online gameplay. In 1998, LucasArts released a collectors edition which included X-Wing and TIE Fighter and their expansions with the updated XvsT graphics. The games were identical in every other way though. Another sequel, X-Wing Alliance, put you back as the Rebels, but during the post-Hoth era. It is in many ways TIE Fighter's equal, further improving on things and adding a gaggle of craft, as well as better graphics and 3D virtual cockpits. Alliance still remains somewhat popular eight years after it's release. It's rather unfortunate that LucasArts didn't add anymore games to the series. It would be interesting to see where the games would have gone considering the power of today's computers.

Leopard Unleashed: October 26th

By Mike on 6:17 pm

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Apple is finally releasing it's much anticipated OS X 10.5 Leopard operating system. It's due out on October 26th. You can pre-order your copy right now for delivery on that date. I have.

Apple is promising 300 new features. That's a lot to list. Major ones include the Time Machine system restore and backup program, Quicklook, which gives full scale previews of documents before loading, a redesigned desktop, better dual core and 64-bit compatibility, and more. Apple is promising it will be easy to install and works with all current OS X applications. It's $129 for a single system, which isn't too bad. Single license copies of Vista Home Premium sell for that.

Look for my review coming soon after the 26th.

Playstation 3: The Seventh Gen Beast

By Mike on 9:42 pm

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Updated Review: September 2008

A review today. This time it's the Playstation 3. The underdog of the seventh gen. I had been saving for a while to get a seventh generation console. I originally went out yesterday to pick up the Xbox 360, which was only $399 for the 20gb model and came with a couple games. An excellent deal but my lucked turned out to be typical. They were all out. Only the Halo editions were left, which are just Premium 360s painted green and orange. I figured the extra $50 for the snazzy paint job wasn't worth it. They did have one 60gb PS3 left so I picked that up instead. Now you might be saying, why would I pay $200 more for something when I wouldn't pay $50 more for the Halo 360. Well, the PS3 happens to have a built in Bluray, while the 360's HD-DVD drive is $200 extra, so the same setup would have cost the same. The PS3 also lacks a lot of the hardware issues the 360 has. Lets take a look.

The PS3 is slightly bigger and heavier than the 360. It features a 3.2ghz IBM Cell processor, 256mb 3.2ghz XDR-RAM, and a nVidia G70 GPU at 550mhz with 256mb DDR3. Over the PS3's entire lifespan, there have been six models available for sale, which are listed below. Currently, only two remain in production. All PS3 models include a Bluray drive, PS1 emulation, user upgradable hard drive, SixAxis or Dual Shock 3 controller, and built in gigabit LAN.

-The 60gb model is the "top of the line" PS3. Features include a flash card reader, four USB ports, built in 802.11g Wifi, Emotion Engine for hardware emulation of PS2 titles, Super Audio CD playback, 60gb hard drive, and chrome trim. This model currently retails for $449 brand new but has been discontinued.
-The 20gb is identical to the 60gb but lacks chrome trim, wifi, and card reader. It came with a 20gb hard drive. It also included a built in Emotion Engine chip for PS2 games. It has been discontinued. Current price is unknown but it originally sold for $499.
-The 80gb is identical to the 60gb model except it dropped hardware emulation of PS2 titles in favour of software to reduce price. Compatible with 80% of PS2 games. Comes in a bundle with either Motorstorm or Metal Gear Solid 4. It is currently in production and sells for $499.
-The 40gb was an ultra low cost model. It cut out the card reader, PS2 backwards compatibility, Super Audio CD support, and chrome trim. It reduced the number of USB ports to two. It uses a 65nm CPU for reduced heat and power consumption. It included a copy of Spiderman 3 on Blu-ray. It has been discontinued but is still available for $399.
-The new 80gb (not to be confused with the one above) is identical to the 40gb but includes a larger hard drive. Comes with DualShock 3 controller. Currently in production and retails for $399.
-The 160gb is identical to the 40gb but includes a larger hard drive. Comes with DualShock 3 controller. It is bundled with a copy of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and a PSN voucher for PAIN. In production as of October 2008 and retails for $499.

In box, you get the usual goodies: power cables, composite/RCA AV cable, ethernet cable, USB cable, and one SIXAXIS controller, as well as manuals and the various advertisements. HD video cables are not included in the box, likely as a cost cutting measure. You'll need the component or HDMI cable for BD playback, and the HDMI cable for DVD upscaling to HD resolutions. HDMI provides the optimal HD experience. Just don't go forking out more than $20 for a 6ft cable because it's not worth it. Those expensive cables are identical to cheaper ones. The system itself sets up quickly. Just plug in the power cable and the AV cable and you're ready to go. The PS3 has a built in power supply so there's no brick like the 360 has. The SIXAXIS can function as either a wired or wireless controller through the USB port. It charges via USB.
All PS3 models feature a built in 2.5'', 5200rpm SATA2 hard drive. Currently available units feature a 40gb or 80gb drive. The two original models featured a 20gb or 60gb drive. A big plus is that Sony allows you to upgrade the internal drive with any off the shelf 2.5'' SATA laptop drive, unlike Microsoft which requires you to purchase a proprietary drive. The PS3 can also use any FAT32 formatted USB drive such as a thumb drive or portable hard drive. Portable drives can be used to store game saves, music, videos and photos. It cannot however store game installs to these drives. Additionally, the built in card reader in the 60gb and 80gb models can add even more storage.

Lets look at the software side of things. Sony has pretty much made the system software identical to what's on the PSP. Sony calls it the XrossMediaBar. It's used in the PSP and some of their HDTVs. It's a simple, streamlined, user friendly interface. Non-tech minded people should be able to figure it out quickly. You can control the software through either the controller or a USB keyboard and mouse. Any USB keyboard and mouse should work. You can use it to enter text on the web browser or any other function that demands text input. Some games, COD4 I believe, allow the keyboard and mouse in game, but most don't. The XrossMediaBar has functions for pictures, music, movies, networking, and the Playstation Network. You can easily import photos directly from your camera's memory card, rip audio CDs to the HDD, and watch your movies. For gaming, you can play demos or games bought through the Playstation Store on your HDD. The PS3 also allows you to install another OS on a 10gb partition. Linux distros such as OpenSUSE, Ubuntu, and Gentoo have PS3 distributions. Sony officially supports Yellow Dog for the PS3. The PS3 can be used as an all-in-one media centre or a desktop PC, or both. I tried Ubuntu and it works fine.

The PS3 of course provides a lot of gaming options. All PS3s except the upcoming 40gb model support playback of Playstation and Playstation 2 titles. The old 20gb and 60gb models are ideal for this since they use hardware emulation with an on board Emotion Engine chip, thus being compatible with almost 100% of PS2 games. The 80gb and 60gb PAL model use software emulation and are are compatible with only 80% of PS2 games. The 40gb cannot play PS2 games at all. The EE was cut on the new models to reduce cost. All models are fully backwards compatible with original Playstation games. If you're a hardcore gamer, try to find one of the older models. It's worth it due to the wide PS2 library. Of course the PS2 is still available but it's nice to have everything in one. At first, PS3 titles were few and far between but now there are plenty of A class games out there to play. Titles such as Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid 4, and LittleBigPlanet shoud whet the appatite of gamers. I didn't buy a game at first since the store I bought the console at didn't have very much. Dedicated game stores like EB tend to have more titles in stock. The local video store wasn't much help either. They only had about 10 titles. I picked up Elder Scrolls Oblivion and Ace Combat 5, a PS2 game. Both worked flawlessly. Oblivion really stresses a system. Even top PCs can struggle with outdoor scenes. The PS3 does a good job at rendering them smoothly. AC5 worked just as if it were on a PS2. In some cases, the PS3 will outperform the 360 in terms of frame rate. Dirt and Assassin's Creed are two examples.
One of the problems with the PS3 and gaming is that the Cell processor is difficult to program for. All PS3 games come on Blu-Ray discs. Some games such as Devil May Cry and MGS4 are starting to require a 5gb hard drive install to play them. This significantly reduces load times but takes up valuable hard drive space. Gamers have criticized how long the games take to install and that this feature defeats the purpose of a console. With BD's 48mbit/second transfer rates, I personally think such big installs are unnecessary. DMC doesn't require an install on the 360.
One final thing worth noting on the games themselves is that they aren't region coded, or rather region coding isn't enforced. Therefore, Japanese and European games will play on a North American console, and vice versa. PS2 and PS1 games are still region coded though, as well as BD movies. I have to commend SCE for going the region free route with their games. There are a lot of really great games that never get released in North America for one reason or another so it's good to see the doors are no longer shut to niche titles.
For control, you get the SIXAXIS or DualShock 3, a bluetooth powered wireless controller. As I already mentioned, it can also be used as a wired controller via the included USB cable, and is charged via USB. The original SIXAXIS lacks a rumble function, which some criticized. However, I've been playing PC games with a keyboard for so long, I don't miss it. The SIXAXIS has a primitive motion sensing function, sensing tilt and side acceleration. It's not nearly as advanced as the Wii's though. The layout is identical to past PS controllers. A DualShock 3 controller with rumble function is available separately for $54 and is bundled with the new 80gb and 160gb models. The PS3 can also be integrated with the PSP using Remote Play, which allows a PSP to control a PS3 wirelessly. This function is a tad on the slow side due to the PSP being limited to the older and slower Wireless B Wifi. Pixel Junk Eden is a notable title that allows gameplay with Remote Play. Most PS3 games will not though. Remote Play does allow you to access all your media as well as the PS Store and the web browser from your PSP.
For online gaming, the PS3's Playstation Network (PSN) service is 100% free. However, some say it is not as good as the fee based Xbox Live.

One of the big draws to the PS3 is it's Blu-Ray drive. It supports BD discs, DVD, CD, and SACD, plus their respective recordable formats. Blu-ray has won the HD format war so the PS3 is a solid buy right now. It's also one of the few BD players on the market that is fully upgradable to the future 2.0 BD Live profile. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to use HDMI with HDCP compatible devices for BD playback. At least that's according to the manual. It will output to 720p and 1080i, but not 1080p without HDMI and HDCP compliant devices. I don't have a 1080p TV, like most people, so this isn't really a big issue. BD playback at 720p or 1080i still looks excellent. One thing that bugs me is the lack of ability to upscale regular DVDs over component. This isn't really the PS3's fault but I still think you should be able to.
One issue that some people complain about is the lack of an IR receiver, meaning the PS3 cannot use non-Bluetooth universal remotes. Sony sells an additional "Blu-Ray Remote" for the PS3 for about $30. The SixAxis controls for media playback are fine though so the additional remote, while easier, is not necessary.
Additionally, the PS3 has great multimedia capability. For music, it supports MP3, AAC, ATRAC, and non-protected WMA. The PS3 can also rip audio CDs directly to it's hard drive in either one of these formats at various quality levels, DRM free. All models except for the 40gb can play back the elusive SACD high definition audio format. Additionally, the PS3 can "upscale" audio CDs to 48khz, 88.2khz, 176.4khz. For video, the PS3 can play AVC, MPEG1, MPEG2, WMV, and DivX. For photos, you get the usual formats such as JPEG. The PS3 can interface with a desktop PC acting as a media server. The freeware TVersity media server is one of the most popular Windows programs for doing this but Windows Media Player also works. The 802.11g wifi connection is plenty for streaming and transferring standard definition video, audio, and pictures. For HD video, you'll want to use the wired Gigabit LAN connection.

So, is the PS3 worth it? I think so if you intend to use it as an HTPC. It's essentially four devices in one. It is expensive but the addition of the 40gb model has reduced prices to $399, with the sacrifice of backwards compatibility. As a media centre, it works as advertised, and does an excellent job at it. It's user friendly and provides a good gaming experience. I'd say, if you're looking for a pure game console, buy a Wii or the 360 Arcade. However, if you want a full all-in-one media centre, the PS3 is something to consider. The PS3 is also the most futurproof of the three consoles. Lets take a look at the numbers.

Graphics: 10/10
Gameplay: 8/10
Multimedia Performance: 9/10
Ease of Use: 9/10
Build Quality: 9/10
Game Variety: 8/10
Value: 8/10

Overall: 9/10

-Stunning Graphics and sound
-User Friendly
-Access to most of the PSOne and PS2 library
-No region coding for PS3 games
-Integrated BD, WiFi,
-User upgradable HDD
-Wide multimedia support
-Easy to install another OS and use it like a PC
-Blu-ray won the HD format war. Upgradable to Blu-ray Live 2.0 profile.
-Free online play

-No DVD upscaling over Component video
-BD doesn't output to 1080p without HDMI and HDCP compliant devices

40gb PS3 is a Go, but...

By Mike on 10:48 pm

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Sony Computer Entertainment Europe has announced the release of the much rumored 40gb PS3 model. However, this one has a catch. Unlike the original "low cost" 20gb model, the new 40gb model will have some features cut. Out is the Emotion Engine emulator which means PS2 games cannot be played on the new model. It also lacks a memory card reader and has only two USB ports. The downsized version will sell for 399 Euros. I expect it will probably sell for $399-$450 when it becomes available in North America. Unfortunately, Sony likes to leave us in the Americas high and dry when it comes to releasing new stuff.

So, Sony is once again having another crack at a low cost PS3 model. Well, they've already done away with the 20gb, and now the 60gb is on it's way out. The 80gb is the new flagship model and already sells for upwards of $100 more than the 60gb, despite the cost difference between the HDDs being some $20. It's important to note that the hard drive in the PS3, (as with all devices with them) can be upgraded. If money was no object, you could put a 250gb drive in it if you wanted to. However, the 40gb drive in the new model should be adequate for most people, even as a media server. Even the two missing USB ports aren't a problem.

The two biggest changes that cripple the console are lack of the flash reader and the EE emulator chip. First off all, the new model is now closed to the massive library of PS2 games. The Cell is difficult to program for and there is already a lack of decent PS3 titles. Lack of a flash reader is not so much a big deal but it does make transferring data between the PS3 and a PC (or another PS3) easier if you don't have a home network. Home networking can be overwhelming for those without a lot of computer knowledge.

So will this new model by worth buying? Well, despite it's downfalls, I'd say yes. The lack of the EE chip is no biggie. Most people buying a PS3 will likely also own a PS2. If not, the PS2 can be bought cheaply used off eBay and new ones are only about $130. As I already noted, 40gb of space will not be limiting for most people. Lack of a flash reader is not big either. Setting up a WiFi network may seem overwhelming but really isn't that hard. WiFi is the one big advantage the PS3 has over the 360. While wired networks are faster, WiFi is more convenient and easier to setup. (try running Cat-5 cable through a cramped attic in the middle of winter) If cutting these things make the PS3 cheaper, that's a good thing. All the core functions are still there. Now if only we could get some better games.