In Game XMB for PS3 Coming in June?

By Mike on 10:02 am

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It must be a windy day because the rumor mill is turning at full tilt. Every time a new firmware has come out for the PS3, no matter how big or minor, there have been uppity fanboys demanding to know where the In-Game XMB is. Well apparently it's coming in June. That's according to PSU who has been wrong before (see Firmware 2.0 post). Sony has said though that they intend to implement the feature in the near future. It's expected that the In-Game XMB will be released in Firmware 2.4. Sony is apparently going through the current game library to see if there are compatability issues and an SDK is due out at the end of June to allow new games to take full advantage of it. The SDK apparently allows for user music in games. The main draw behind In-Game XMB is to allow chat without having to quit the game.

One officially announced feature of 2.4 is the addition of a trophy system, similar to the one used on Xbox Live. PixleJunk Eden is said to be listed as the first game to support it. The idea behind all of this is to make PSN competative with the arguably superior Xbox Live. So far, the PS3's online capability has been pretty sparse, though it is still a free service.

Source: PSU

Update: Another rumored feature for 2.4 is the revolutionary In-XMB clock! Development videos seem to show a clock and calendar in the corner of the XMB. I've always found it odd that the PS3 doesn't have a a clock, despite the fact that you can program the date and time into it. Ironically, the menu for Gran Turismo 5 Prologue does and throws in weather as a bonus. It's not often you see software that has a better, more functional menu than the OS.

Bioshock Confirmed for PS3

By Mike on 8:06 pm

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Good gravy with a steaming load of horse manure. 2K Games has officially announced that Bioshock, previously an Xbox 360 exclusive, will be released for the Playstation 3. You may remember I didn't have a lot of good things to say about the PC version of this game. This was mainly due to the crippling bugs and controversial SecuROM DRM system, which was even included with the demo (in a cut down form) for some bizarre reason. The rumor that the game might be moving to the PS3 has persisted for months on end. Most of us saner people figured it was just that, a rumor. 2K made it official today. The release date is set to be around the 2008 Christmas season.

Will I play it? The PC version left almost as bad a taste in my mouth as Ron Jeremy's butter. Still, I do want to play the game. Hopefully, this will be programmed from the ground up to run on the Cell BBE rather than being a port of the 360 version. From past experience, sloppy ports (such as Orange Box) don't get along with the PS3. Given the dog's breakfast that the PC version was, I can't be too optimistic at this point. This will definitely be a rent first title.

New PSP Bundle for Sports Fans

By Mike on 3:11 pm

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Yet another new PSP bundle to add to the growing list. I didn't mention this one in the review. Like the Daxter bundle I did mention, this one seems to be of excellent value too. The new bundle features a new colour, metallic blue. This pack is for football fans. It includes a copy of Madden 09. EA's flagship football franchise is celebrating it's 20th anniversary this year. Additionally, it comes with "NFL: Just one Play" UMD movie, 1gb memory stick, and a Playstation Store voucher to download Beats, a rythm game. According to the PS Blog, Beats works with your own music collection. It's like Guitar Her on the go with custom tracks. Reviews of it have been positive.

Overall, this is an excellent value if you like football. Besides the Daxter pack, this is the only other PSP bundle worth buying.

Sony Playstation Portable Review

By Mike on 7:33 pm

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When I first started this blog, my first post was a list of things that I thought the PSP needed to improve it. Some have been done, others haven't. I've talked about it on and off but I've never done a review of it. After writing up on the DS, I'd thought it was time for the PSP to get full rundown. As I mentioned in the DS review, Nintendo has long dominated the handheld console market. Others have tried with mixed success. Enter Sony who's widely successful Playstation line was crushing Nintendo's once successful console business. If anything could bring Gameboy down, Sony could.
The Playstation Portable, or PSP for short, was first released late 2004 in Japan and arrived in North America March 2005. Here in Canada, it sold at the hefty price tag of $249 for the core system and $299 for a Value Pack which threw in a 32mb memory stick duo, headphones, strap, and pouch. The system currently retails for $169.99 for the core system and $199.99 for one of three value packs.

As with the DS, we'll start by looking at it's hardware. The PSP is a rectangular shapped system. It features a single glossy 4.3'' LCD screen with a resolution of 480x272 with a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. The screen is polarized but its glossy nature renders it difficult to see in certain lighting conditions, particularly outdoors. However, the screen itself is bright and colours are rendered well. There are four levels of brightness controlled by a simple button under the screen. LCD response times are a little slow in games with high speed such as WipEout Pulse.
Under the hood, the system is powered by a 333mhz MIPS R4000 CPU with 32mb of RAM. An unidentified GPU runs at 166mhz with 2mb of on-board VRAM. Originally, the CPU had been locked at 266mhz, presumably as a power reduction feature. However, a recent firmware update unlocked the processor to its full speed allowing for more complex games. Game performance is on par with earlier Playstation 2 titles so it's not inaccurate to call the PSP a portable PS2. The system runs off a lithium-polymer battery which provides up to 11hrs of music and 5-6hrs of gameplay or movies. An extended life battery provides 20% extra play time but is not entirely compatible with the new, slimmer PSP models. It fits but requires a special cover. This battery has since been discontinued though third party units are probably available.

The games themselves are stored on proprietary UMD discs. These discs can hold up to 1.8gb of data. UMDs (Universal Media Discs) are miniDVD based, though blank ones are not available. The discs are contained inside a plastic caddy to protect them from dust and damage. They are used to store both games and movies. The load times for UMDs can be a bit on the slow side since they are optical discs. Besides UMDs, the PSP has expandable, writeable storage in the form of Sony's Memory Stick Pro Duo flash cards. The cards are used with Sony branded digital cameras and are thus widely available. They range in size up to 8gb with a 16gb card on the way. The cards have come down drastically in price recently but are still more expensive than comparable Secure Digital cards. A memory stick is required for game saves since the PSP has no built in storage.
The control layout is based on a cut down version of the DualShock. It has a D-Pad, four right hand buttons (X, Square, Triangle, and Circle), and two shoulder buttons. Unlike many other portables, the PSP features an analogue stick (called the nub) for fine control in a 3D environment. As with the DS, I'll discuss how well the control works when I get to gameplay.
For connectivity, the PSP has a USB port, 802.11b Wifi, and an IR adapter. Unfortunately, Sony does not provide a USB cable with the system, or at least mine didn't. You'll need to buy one with a male type B connector like the one used for charging the PS3's controllers. It is used to connect the system to a PC, Mac, or PS3 to upload or download files to and from the system. The wireless networking feature is speeder and more robust than on the DS, allowing the system to stream media from a PS3 (or PC with special software) or the internet, browse the internet, and talk on Skype. 802.11b runs at up to 11mbits/s, enough for streaming uncompressed CD quality audio under ideal conditions. The IR port on the original PSP was added but never officially used. It has been removed on the newer models.
In 2007, the PSP was redesigned. Above I've been discussing the original PSP-1000 model. The new model, dubbed the Slim & Lite, or PSP-2000, includes a few new features. Physically, the new system is 20% thinner and 33% lighter than the original. Under the hood, it includes 64mb or RAM, a UMD caching feature for faster load times, charging of the system via USB, and TV out. The additional memory is needed for caching and other applications such as Skype. The IR receiver was removed with the Wifi activation switch moved in its place. The speakers have also been moved near the top of the screen. There's really not a heck of a lot of difference between the two systems once you strip them down. Game and media performance is identical. It retails for $169.99 for the core pack and $199.99 for the Value packs.

Onto gameplay. As I mentioned, the PSP is essentially a portable PS2 with game quality resembling early titles from that system. Games are far more adult oriented for the PSP than they are with the Nintendo DS. Popular titles include Daxter and God of War: Chains of Olympus. It can also play PS1 titles bought and downloaded from the Playstation Store. Original games can also be bought from the store and stored on a Memory Stick. Additionally, demos can also be downloaded from the store allowing you to try before you buy. The Playstation Store can be accessed either through PC or a PS3. Sony is promising a direct to PSP store in the near future.
The system is unique from other portables due to its inclusion of an analogue stick, which some refer to as the nub. Located on the lefthand side, the nub appears as a textured disc. It works like any analogue stick and it's quite responsive. The nub however can be difficult at times, particularly in games that want you to rotate it to perform specific actions. It's not as easy as using a stick design. Given the nature of the system, a stick design would be impractical though since it would likely get broken easily. The system does not include a second analogue stick so camera control can be wonky. Most games will use the shoulder buttons or an automatic camera. Games like Daxter and God of War work well with this system but Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters does not. Another complaint I have is that the system can get somewhat tiresome to hold after a while due to it's layout and bulk. I haven't tried the new Slim model yet. Unlike the DS, the PSP still uses conventional gameplay which is not actually a bad thing but it's not exactly the most innovative either.
For the games themselves, there are a wide variety of titles available spanning various genres and age classes. Patapon and LocoRoco are two excellent, family friendly puzzle games for the system which use colourful 2D environments. God of War satisfies your lust for blood on the go. There are also shooters and 3D platformers, auto racing, RPG, etc. Multiplayer is achieved over Wifi ether using an ad hoc (PSP to PSP) or infrastructure (over a network) mode. You can either connect several PSPs together wirelessly for local play or connect to world servers for online play. In addition, the PSP is region free so games bought in Japan or Europe will work on American systems and vice versa.
Right now, there is a current drought of new titles coming out for the PSP. Sony has admitted that the Western market needs more games. Sony has actively discouraged homebrew gaming due to piracy fears. I feel Sony needs to start encouraging more indie developers to make game for the system by opening it up to alleviate the drought. The fact that so few new titles are being released is really causing the downfall of the system. Developers has claimed piracy (due to homebrew firmware that allows disc images to be played) and lack of sales as the primary reasons for shying away from the PSP. The latter being the main reason.

How about other features? The PSP has been described as a Swiss Army knife. Aside from playing games, it also boasts a wide array additional features that perfectly complement the lifestyle market. In addition to a gaming device, the PSP also boasts personal media and online functionality. It uses the same Xross Media Bar (XMB) interface which allows you to quickly scroll through icons to find what you want. The XMB also features a clock and calendar as well as customizable themes and wallpapers. There are a wide variety of official and user created themes available online or through the Playstation Store. The system can display photos, play music, and play videos. It does a good job at all three of these. For music, it can play back MP3, WMA, and unprotected AAC files at up to 320kb/s. Video can either be stored in MPEG or AVC at up to 480p resolution. Furthermore, it can stream photos and unprotected music and video files from your PS3 using Remote Play. Remote Play allows you to control your PS3 using the PSP's built in WiFi. Unfortunately, Remote Play cannot be used to watch BD movies, DVDs, play most PS3 games, and PS2 games. Pixel Junk Eden is a notable PS3 game that does support Remote Play.
For web connectivity, the PSP can stream RSS 2.0 feeds (but not text RSS feeds), watch live TV using Sony's LocationFree TV media server, listen to internet radio, and browse the web. The PSP's web browser is provided by NetFront. It's a little clunky and doesn't display some web pages correctly. Google however provides a service that converts web pages for use on mobile browsers. The browser does support Adobe Flash, though it is an older version that may not work with some sites. The biggest downfall of the browser is the complicated and tedious text entry system given that the system does not have a keyboard or touch screen. While you can't really use it to visit social networking sites and the like, it's good for getting quick information such as weather reports or news provided you're near a Wifi hotspot. Additionally, the new Slim PSP allows you to make phone calls using the Skype internet phone service if you're near a hot spot. The original PSP does not have this feature.
Additional features can be added thanks to upgradeable firmware. Updates for the system can be downloaded to from your PC to the PSP over USB, or you can use the PSP's built in wifi to download them directly. The advantage to this is that new features can be added to the system over time. For example, the Skype, XMB themes, and internet radio features were not part of the original PSP. This gives the system a longer potential lifespan than past portables.

I would say the PSP is definitely a system worth looking at if you want a portable game device, or want to buy one for someone else as a gift. Even if you don't like the games, it's excellent media and internet functionality will make sure it still gets plenty of use. I give it a 9 out of 10 just for the bang for buck alone. The PSP currently retails in four bundles for North America. The core package includes just the system in piano black, battery, and power adapter with a game and memory card sold separately. It retails for $169.99 though I only recommend this for people who already have a PSP and are looking to upgrade to the new Slim model. As I mentioned, there are three bundles available, all retailing for $199.99. The God of War bundle includes a red PSP with Kratos lithograph, God of War game, and Superbad UMD movie. The Star Wars bundled includes a white PSP with Darth Vader lithograph and Battlefront Renegade Squadron game. The Daxter bundle includes a silver PSP with Daxter game, 1gb memory stick, the Family Guy Freakin Sweet Collection UMD movie. All the above bundles also include the battery and power adapter. In my opinion, the Daxter bundle is the best bang for your buck. Lets move onto score.

What Works:
-Near Playstation 2 game graphics
-Excellent media capability. Plays movies, music, and photos
-Excellent online capability
-Remote Play for wirelessly interfacing with a PS3
-Good game selection with downloadable content available
-Expandable storage
-Excellent value for the money

What Doesn't Work
-Short battery life compared to the DS.
-Game drought for new titles
-Analogue nub awkward at times
-Gets dirty easily, no screen protector
-Slow load times with optical media

Score: 9 out of 10

You might be asking how I do with these reviews. I have to admit I really do just pull the scores out of my butt. I do consider several criteria though. As with my DS and PSP reviews indicated, I heavily focus on value and quality. That's why I ranked the PSP higher than the DS given the general trend for devices these days is more all-in-one functionality. What works vs what doesn't also factors in heavily but it depends on how much one benefits the product vs how the other cripples it. How many items I put into each category doesn't determine the score. I might have four pluses and only one minus, but if that minus is particularly sever, it will trump the pluses. It works vice versa as well if issues with the product are minor. Unlike professional reviwers, I don't get paid and this blog isn't sponsored by anyone except Google's free web space.

Haze Doesn't Run in HD

By Mike on 4:34 pm

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One of May's anticipated titles is the PS3 exclusive shooter Haze. There's a demo available for it on PSN. I didn't review this particular demo but I think it's worth another look. First of all, let me say that I hate most of the stuff UBIsoft puts out, particularly after getting stung with Lock-On: Modern Air Combat with it's slide show performance and Starforce copy protection. Not all their games are bad such as the Il-2 Forgotten Battles series or Assassin's Creed. However, Haze is shaping up to be a typical UBI game. Now, UBIsoft is the publisher, not the developer, but the publisher is the one who ultimately controls what goes out to the public.

As for Haze, I was rather unimpressed with the demo. It's a typical shooter asside from the pretty useless Nectar system. Nectar is a bioenhancing drug that gives you temporary super human abilities such as sight, speed, and health recovery. You go around shooting terrorists. This is a pretty standard dystopian future story stripped right out of countless games like the venerable Doom or Half Life. The gaphics were what caught my eye though. They were pretty poor and very blurry for a PS3 title. I've noted this before on some games but Haze is worse than others. Why are they so bad? Derek Littlewood, the creative lead on the game gave the answer in an interview with Ripten. The game runs at 1024x576 rather than 1280x720 (aka 720p). Therefore Haze is not in high definition but rather enhanced definition. This is a slightly higher resolution than the European PAL format of 576p but it is a non-standard resolution. The PS3 therefore has to upscale the video to 720p or 1080i/1080p. This is what makes the graphics blurry, especially on my monitor which is 1440x900. That means for me the game has to be upscaled twice. Once by the PS3, once by the monitor. This new information goes against what was written on the Playstation Blog which stated that it does run at 720p.

A lot of gamers say they don't care, they just want to play the game. However, I think it's deceptive to say a game runs at said resolution when it actually does not. It's also bad on the developer's part for not making a game that can run in HD on an HD console. Haze is certainly not going to tax your PS3 since the graphics are inferior to titles such as Uncharted which does run at 720p. Overall, May has been a pretty crappy month for gaming. Yes, I'm aware that GTAIV was a good game this month but that's not my cup of tea to begin with. Hopefully June with MGS4 and Secret Agent Clank will be a better month.

Update: IGN has been receiving some criticism for giving Haze a 4.5 out of 10. After playing the demo, I kind of agree with this. IGN is often criticized for being "paid off" by Microsoft and being 360 fanboys but I really do think Haze deserves it. The graphics aren't stunning and the gameplay is pedestrian. There are worse games than Haze though but it's not something I'd spend $60 on. Rent only.

Nintendo DS Lite Review

By Mike on 4:09 pm

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I recently got my hands on a Nintendo DS Lite for the weekend so I thought I'd review it as I did with the other consoles. This past week, CNet did a run down putting the DS head to head with the PSP. The two portables were the first seventh generation consoles to hit the market, hitting North American shores back in 2005. For years, Nintendo has completely dominated the hand held console market with the Gameboy. The system which premièred in 1989 sported longer battery life and a better library of games than its competitors even if the graphics and sound were inferior. Nintendo has lost some ground to Sony's Playstation Portable recently, which is currently the top selling handheld in the vital Japanese market. The Nintendo DS is the first portable made by Nintendo not to be christened Gameboy. Does it live up to its predecessors? Has the Gameboy grown into a Gameman? Let's take a closer look.

First, we'll start by looking at the system from a technical standpoint. Nintendo has always been innovative with their products. The DS in Nintendo DS stands for "dual screen". It features two 3'' LCD screens with a resolution of 256x192 in a 4:3 aspect ratio. In comparison, the PSP has a single 4.3'' LCD with a resolution of 480x272 and a 16:9 aspect ratio. One of the crowning features of the DS which separates it from the Gameboy Advance is the addition of a touch screen. The DS uses a stylus for input using the touch screen. Commands are entered into the lower screen using a small, plastic, pen-like pointer. I'll discuss this in further detail when I get to gameplay. Only the lower screen has touch recognition. Aside from the touch screen, the DS features two shoulder buttons, a standard D-pad, and four control buttons. It does not have an analogue stick. It also has a microphone for voice recognition in some games.
Under the hood, the system is powered by two ARM RISC 32-bit processors running at 67mhz and 33mhz respectively. Presumably the second processor provided backwards compatibility for Gameboy Advance titles, since it's the same processor used in that system. The system has 4mb of Mobile RAM. The games themselves are stored on flash cards rather than optical discs that the PSP uses. As with all cartridge based games, load times are virtually non-existent. The flash based game cards store up to 256MB with 64MB being typical. Some memory on the cards is left open for game saves. Unlike other systems, the DS has no expandable storage beyond the game cards. As I mentioned, the DS Lite is backwards compatible with Gameboy Advanced cartridges in single player mode only. The quality of the graphics are similar to N64 titles. For audio, the DS has two stereo speakers next to the top screen which provide surprisingly decent sound. The audio quality is similar to that of a N64 game. The volume control is a weird slider though rather than using a wheel or digital controls.
For connectivity and multiplayer for DS titles, the system has Wifi, which it lists as being just 802.11. Presumably this is legacy 802.11 which runs at up to 2mbits/s. An Opara browser add-on was made but has since been discontinued in North America due to poor performance.
Nintendo released the DS Lite in 2006. It is smaller and lighter than the original DS. The DS Lite has identical features to the original but besides the shrink, some of the buttons were moved. It has a glossy white finish similar to the Wii. Both the DS Lite and DS have a clamshell design. While the outside case is glossy, the inside has a matte finish so it's not the fingerprint magnet that the PSP is. The screens also have a matte finish to prevent glare. Aside from white, it also comes in red, coral pink, cobalt blue, and onyx (black).

Now onto gameplay. The game I had with it was The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass. I've played every single Zelda game with the exception of the CD-I titles, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess. The portable Zelda titles have usually been as strong as their console counterparts. Take Link's Awakening for example which was pretty much a masterpiece for a portable system at the time. I also enjoyed Ages and Seasons as well as the Minish Cap. Compared to these four, Phantom Hourglass is probably one of the weaker titles alongside black sheep Zelda 2. It seems to be a direct sequel of Wind Waker. Zelda (Tetra) has been kidnapped by a ghost ship and it's up to Link to rescue her. The game does not take place in Hyrule but rather on several islands at sea. The worlds feel a lot smaller and the dungeons and bosses were too easy compared to the other Zelda games. The game makes heavy use of the stylus and microphone with no option for conventional gameplay. I found the stylus interesting since it allows you to directly interact with the screen. It makes targeting enemies easy. To move Link around, you drag and hold the stylus in the direction you want him to go. One annoying thing is the use of the mic. I really don't want to have to talk to my games, especially if I'm out in public. It is used to bow out torches and candles to open new passages in the Fire temple by softly blowing into it, which is interesting. Still, I think I would have preferred it if they stuck to the conventional formula for a Zelda game. It just didn't feel like it fit in with the series. It's one of the first Zelda titles where I've ever been bored. It was simply too easy and got repetitive at times. Unfortunately, I didn't get to try any other DS titles. The games for the DS have a fairly good mix of genres but they're still kid oriented. Unfortunately, where as past Gameboy titles could be easily enjoyed by adults, DS titles are heavily focused on a younger crowd. Games like Brain Age are targeted at casual adult gamers but I haven't played educational games since the third grade. I can see young kids really enjoying this system, until they loose the stylus one too many times. Nintendo does throw in a spare but I know how I was when I was little. I would have liked to try Pokemon or Mario. Pokemon has always been one of Nintendo's strongest exclusively portable titles and I've heard good things about Diamond and Pearl.
Another thing I though was odd about gameplay was the dual screens. In some aspects it's useful. Your map in Hourglass sticks to the top while you control the bottom screen. There's no flipping menus to see where you are. However, sometimes the two screens get in the way of each other. The top screen can also be pretty superfluous at times. Personally, I would have preferred one big touch screen to two small ones.
A final note on the games. The Nintendo DS is currently the only seventh generation platform that does not support downloadable content. I think this is a major weakness given how big the internet plays with gaming today, especially given the DS's much touted WiFi capability. Sony's PSP currently allows both PS1 and PSP games to be bought from the Playstation Store. Nintendo's own Wii has it's Virtual Console and WiiWare. Without any expandable storage beyond the game cards, the DS is frozen in time. Games cannot be updated, firmware adding new features can't be updated, users can't purchase downloadable games online, and addon content made by either users or developers can't be added. Nintendo obviously doesn't want to release blank game cards due to piracy fears so people seeking online content will have to look elsewhere. For such an innovative company, it was foolish of Nintendo to leave this out. Maybe it was to keep costs down, but given the price of the DS, I don't think it would be a problem. I'll get to that in a second.

Now onto functionality and value. So what else does the DS do besides play games? Well, nothing. It can't play music and has no storage support for downloadable titles. You can't use it to play music or watch movies though there are third party add-ons coming out that promise MP3 support by using micro SD cards interfaced with a DS game card adapter. The system software is very basic. It has a clock and calendar on the top screen and game selection and chat are on the bottom. Picochat is the DS's very basic online chat program. Without additional storage, the number of game saves you have is very limited. Nintendo endeavoured to create a handheld that just does one thing well, play games, and that they did. However, I can't help but feel it's overpriced at $139.99. For that, you get no games or accessories. Since CNet thought it fitting to compare the DS to the PSP, lets look at it from a value perspective. The PSP Daxter bundle costs $199.99. The items included in the bundle add up to $70.97 meaning the system itself only costs $129.02, over ten dollars cheaper than the DS. Now, I'm not a Sony fanboy and the PSP is far from perfect. I think every warm blooded gamer has a soft spot for Nintendo. That doesn't mean I have to like, or force myself to like everything they come out with. They have come out with some pretty goofy stuff over the years. However, the Nintendo DS is certainly not a VirtualBoy. It's not a bad system by any means. It offers a wide library of family friendly games and the touch screen system is innovative. However, I think the DS at its $139.99 price point is expensive. Past Gameboy models have traditionally sold for under $100 US. Given its fairly limited ability compared to Sony's PSP, the DS at it's current price is of poor value. Nintendo really needs to lower its price to at least $120. Still, it's high price point and lack of features hasn't hurt sales. I would recommend this system for any pre-teen gamer. For teens and adults, you're better off with the PSP since they will appreciate it's more adult oriented games and features. Even if you hate the games, it's still usable. Lets get onto the rankings.

What Works
-Innovative stylus control and touch screen
-Wide library of family friendly games
-N64 quality graphics and audio
-Flash based games, no load times
-Wifi support

What Doesn't Work
-Limited functionality beyond gaming
-High price point for little value
-No downloadable content
-Some games don't support conventional control
-No expandable storage, no onboard storage
-Would prefer one big touch screen instead of two small ones

Score: 7.5 out of 10

Firefox 3 Release Candidate 1 Out

By Mike on 4:00 pm

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Mozilla has released the first Release Candidate (RC) version of the new Firefox 3 web browser. Before, I reviewed the Beta 5 version for OS X but I did note some problems. Some in particular were slow load times, memory usage was still high, and the browser would occasionally crash when trying to use the menu bar. I also noticed that performance on Blogger was very slow forcing me to use Safari or my PC instead for my entries. Fortunately, these issues have been cleared up. Memory usage has gone down further by 5-10mb, web page loads are nice and speedy, and the browser no longer crashes. As for the Windows version, I had no problems with Beta 5 to begin with so I didn't notice any real differences between it and RC 1. Popular addons like Ad-block Plus work with RC1. Once again, Mozilla has proved that open source cannot only be a viable alternative, but can also be superior to commercial software. You can download it here.

Secret Agent Clank Demo Review

By Mike on 10:49 am

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So why review demos when they're free for everybody to try. There's a couple of reasons. First off, I just like too. Secondly, they can be pretty indicative of what the final game will be like. I'm a strong believer that demos should be available for all games since we can see for ourselves whether or not the game is any decent before we invest $60 in the full product. That's what has made the next gen consoles so great since their online services all offer some sort of "try before you buy" feature. Many of my game purchasing decisions were made by whether or not I liked a demo. The great thing about Sony is that they offer downloadable demos for the PSP, which was not possible for handhelds until recently.

Today's demo on tap for review is Secret Agent Clank. It's the latest in the Ratchet and Clank series. It was developed by High Impact Games (as was Size Matters) rather than series creator Insomniac. The game is fundamentally similar to the other titles in the series but with a few twists. The game starts out with Lombax hero Ratchet being arrested for stealing a rare crystal from a museum. Ratchet doesn't seem to be his usual hero self and he is thrown in prison for the crime. The primary difference between this game and others in the series is that you play as Clank, Ratchet's little robot sidekick. Clank has always been a playable character for some missions in previous titles but this is his first time as the star. It seems he's gotten a job with a spy agency and its up to him to find out what happened to Ratchet. Dressed in a James Bond-esq tux and bow-tie, Clank must infiltrate the museum to look for clues.

The demo features three playable levels. Two as Clank and one as Ratchet. In previous titles, the goal was to shoot everything in sight. However, Secret Agent Clank takes a slightly different approach. When playing as Clank, stealth is the key. You want to stay out of the guards' flashlights in order to avoid being detected. Getting caught will unleash the guards and their robot attack dogs on you. Your goal is to dodge the lights and avoid getting caught. Clank can disguise himself as statues or plant as well in certain spots to avoid being detected. If you're caught, you will have to fight your way out. Clank's primary weapon is Clank-fu, a melee attack where he can punch and kick. You can also trigger a stealth combo by sneaking up behind unsuspecting guards and pressing the correct buttons to take them out before they know what hit them. The goal is not to get in fights at all. You get a bonus for stealthy actions, which will grant you more nanotech. As in previous games, nanotech bonuses grant you more health. Clank also gathers secret spy gear to assist him, such as the tie-a-rang. Odd Job had his razor sharp hat, Clank has a razor sharp bow-tie that he can throw at enemies to take them out, or to cut cables in certain areas. Certain rooms will have laser security grids to sneak buy. The blackout pen shoots ink at the laser emitters, blinding them to allow Clank to sneak buy. Clank seems to have lost his helicopter attachment but instead he can find rocket boots to jump over high barriers.
The second level includes a new kind of gameplay to the series. Well, it's new to me anyway since I haven't played the PS2 games. The second level comprises of a rhythm game. Tools of Destruction had a similar game but this one is more in line with Patapon. A bar scrolls at the bottom with a line at one end. Hit or hold the correct buttons just as they pass through the line to allow Clank to trigger ninja stealth moves to sneak past the guards and laser grids. Miss too many and Clank will run into some trouble and take some damage. These types of games are getting very popular and I think this works very well.
There's not much to say about the third level. It's a standard Ratchet arena level where he must finish off nine rounds of baddies in a prison yard fight. Fortunately, Clank can smuggle in your lacerator gun should he find it in the first level. You also get the shard gun midway in the rounds and you have your trusty wrench from the beginning. A new weapon gained at the end of the fight allows you to use a super punch. Overall, gameplay is good for this title except for one problem which I'll get to when I discuss the technical side.

Graphics wise, Secret Agent Clank is identical to Size Matters. The game doesn't exactly use the PSP to its full potential. Presumably it uses the same engine as Size. However, graphics are still colourful and the level designs are nice. One lingering problem remains though, and that's the bad camera. Since the PSP doesn't have a second analogue stick, you have to use the shoulder buttons to readjust the camera. This isn't a problem in normal game play but it can really get in the way when you're in the thick of combat. In strafe mode, the camera can really get in the way since enemies aren't always targeted. If you're not careful, and enemy can come up behind you and you'll get hit without even realizing it. Tools of Destruction on the PS3 had an excellent camera and targeting system but not the PSP titles. Personally, I would have liked to see a targeting system similar to the one used on the N64 with the Zelda games. I use the N64 for reference since it too only had one analogue stick. The camera is really the only problem with this game, but we all know how a bad camera can ruin a great game.

Overall, I like this game. It's a nice change of pace from the traditional R&C titles. It looks good, it plays good, and the demo is pretty meaty considering some of the other once I've recently reviewed. High Impact needs to fix the camera though but overall, this is shaping up to be a decent game.

What Works:
-Clank is now the hero!
-Well designed, colourful levels.
-New stealth and rhythm modes

What Doesn't Work:
-Bad camera

Score: 8 out of 10

12 Ways To Improve the PS3, Plus 7 Extras

By Mike on 9:27 am

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CNET had an interesting article titled "12 Ways to Make the PS3 Perfect". It still is one of the best off-the-shelf HTPCs on the market as well as being a great game console but it does have its flaws. Lets start with a rundown of CNET's suggestions and then I'll add my own.

1. Make System Updates and Downloads Faster:
CNET says how tediously slow downloading updates for the system is. Personally I don't have a problem with this since I doubt my desktop would be much faster given my internet connection.

2. Allow Wireless Controller to be Recharged When System is Off
This is a biggie. One of the problems with the Bluetooth controller is that the PS3 must be on for you to recharge it. The PS3 is always in standby unless you turn the switch at the back off so I don't see why this couldn't be done. Alternatively, you can charge through any USB enabled device and AC-DC recharge stations can be bought.

3. Improve the Browser
The PS3's browser sucks as CNET rightly points out. The interface is terrible and it doesn't always display web pages correctly. It uses NetFront, same as the PSP. My suggestion would be to go with Opera like Nintendo did, or better yet, use Firefox. We know from PSUbuntu that Firefox runs on Cell hardware.

4. IR Support
A common complaint is that the PS3 doesn't have IR support, meaning most universal remotes won't work with it. You can buy third party IR dongles already but you can't use them to turn the system on. My suggestion would be for Sony to offer its own IR dongle and update the firmware to include a USB wake-up function similar to the one used for Bluetooth devices.

5. Offer Bluetooth Headset or Bundle
I don't really have anything to say about this. CNET wants a BT headset bundled with an SKU or a Sony made one. While bundling is a good idea, there are plenty of third party headsets out there that Sony really doesn't need to release a PS3 specific one.

6. Support Skype
Interesting but not really necessary. The PSP supports Skype VOIP telephony but I don't think the PS3 really needs to. However, with BT headset support, it could be useful for some.

7. Revamp the GUI for Movie Watching
Some people don't like the PS3's user interface for watching movies. I've never had a problem with it though.

8. Offer PS2 Backwards Compatibility with all SKUs
Removing BC from the 40gb model was controversial. Personally, with the software BC in the 80gb, I think this is pretty much a given. The 40gb might simply lack the emulator so offering it either for free or even for money through the PS Store would be nice for 40gb owners.

9. Add video chat
Sony apparently has had this in the works using the PSeye as a webcam but is dragging their behind on it.

10. Add Netflix Support
We don't get Netflix in Canada so I couldn't care less. However, the Xbox 360 already offers downloadable TV through it's XBL Marketplace. This is a major segment where the PS3 lacks. However, the PlayTV is coming this fall in Europe, which will essentially turn the PS3 into a DVR. Sony has noted that the PlayTV files will be DRM free for easy sharing and transcoding.

11. Add Rhapsody Support
Streaming internet radio. Sony already put internet radio into the PSP so I don't know why this was listed under "Pure Fantasy". Support for ShoutCast or even commercial internet radio such as XM Online would be nice.

12. Add Slingbox Support
The PS3 already has features similar to Slingbox through LocationFree TV. LocationFree is not very popular even though it can stream live TV to your PSP or computer from anywhere in the world. I'd personally prefer to see an ATSC tuner released for the PSP though so you could watch live TV anywhere regardless of Wifi connectivity. The LocationFree is significantly more expensive than Slingbox, which would explain why nobody has it.

Now for my own additions.

13. Add a clock and calendar
The PSP has a clock and calendar in the XMB yet the PS3 doesn't for some unknown reason. I would really like to know what time it is when I'm playing. What kind of system like this these days doesn't have a clock.

14. Better Codec Support
The PS3 is a media powerhouse but it still skimps on the codecs. Adding DivX and DTS-HD Master Audio was a big thing for video but audio is still lacking. Namely, I would like to see support for lossless formats. Patent free codecs such as FLAC could easily be implemented.

15. In-game Keyboard and Mouse Support
The PS3 does allow you to use any USB or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse as it is, to control the XMB and web browser. However, I'd like to see it supported through more games. First person shoorters are far easier using these input devices rather than DualShock 3.

16. More Game Genre Variety
Most games coming out on the PS3 are first/third person shooters and driving games. Game quality is improving but we just don't have the variety. Sony needs to encourage different genres such as platformers, adventure games, and flight simulation beyond the shooter-driving mix. Adding retro games to the PS Store like Nintendo did with their Virtual Console on the Wii would be nice. I'm talking from other consoles besides PS1, such as Sega Genesis or even (gasp) Dreamcast games like Sonic Adventure.

17. In-game XMB
I'm really just paying lip service to the fanboys with this one. Pretty self explanatory. Gamers want in-game XMB, particularly for chat purposes.

18. Bundled HD Cables
This one is so freaking obvious. Sony still does not bundled HD cables with the console even though it's marketed specifically as an HD gaming device and BD player. It comes with just a composite video cable and RCA audio connectors for connection to an SDTV. Would it really kill Sony to throw in a $5 HDMI or component cable, or both(!) with the system? The Xbox 360 Premium and Elite SKUs do.

19. RSS Reader/Widgets
The PSP has one, sort of. RSS 2.0 allows audio and video streaming. Sony added their own reader that just displays Sony news but I would like to see full RSS functionality. Some functions such as live weather could even be integrated into the XMB.

Iron Man Demo Review

By Mike on 8:23 pm

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"Merchandising! We put the picture's name on everything!" I never did get that Spaceballs The Flamethrower. Movies tend not to do as well as they used to in the cinema so lets sell some junk to fill in the bucks. What's selling big today? Why games of course! The problem is that a hit movie is often very difficult to adapt to a video game. We first saw that with ET way back in the 80s. Little did we know that was just the tip of the iceberg. Since then we've had a whole host of bad movie based games and just as many bad game based movies. You'd think Hollywood would learn that games and movies don't mix, unless you're LucasArts of course who was smart enough to move into the series' expanded universe early on.

So what about Iron Man. This weeks hit movie has been released as a game, as all hit action movies are inclined to do. I haven't seen the movie yet and I never read a lot of comics as a kid so I admit I'm not familiar with the Iron Man lore and canon. Lets just say that IGN didn't like the game too much, giving it a 3.8 out of 10. However, if you're reading this, you probably want to know what I think. I didn't read the full IGN article so here's my own objective opinion of the demo. 

The Iron Man game was developed by Sega, the once venerable game company that created games such as Golden Ax, Phantasy Star, and Sonic the Hedgehog. I was a bit of a Genesis fanboy back in the day but I feel kind of dirty playing Sega's lackluster newer titles.  First of all, Iron Man is very short lived, even for a demo. I thought the Echochrome one was short. It's a third-person shooter. The single trial mission has seven weapons caches to destroy. This sounds familiar... Oh yes, there was a level like this in Jedi Academy where you have to dodge Boba Fett, who also is pretty much a flying suit of armour. Interestingly, the demo ended before I even destroyed all the caches, even though it's not timed. That was odd. The demo does not teach you how to play so your pretty much on your own. Fortunately, idea of the game is pretty simple. You shoot stuff. You have two weapons at your disposal, a very slow firing machine gun and a laser cannon of some sort. You basically run around and fire at targets. Blue labeled targets are enemies while orange targets are your goals. You face gun turrets, helicopters, rocket launches, tanks, and enemy soldiers. 
Your goal is to shoot and destroy crates of weapons. This does seem relatively simply except that the controls are very wonky. Iron Man can either fly, hover, or walk. Flying and hovering is a bit of a challenge. First of all, the flight controls are backwards. Anybody who has ever flown a plane or even an arcade flight simulator knows that pulling back on the stick makes you go up and pushing forward makes you go down. Sega doesn't seem to know that though. You can invert the Y-axis in controller settings. You also have to hold L1 to fly which is kind of dumb where a mode toggle would have been easier. Hovering is clumsy, controlled by the left trigger but it's not pressure sensitive. Iron Man doesn't know how to hover in place. There is also an inflight dodge feature by pressing X, but that's also clumsy and doesn't seem to do much. In flight, there's also no way to control his speed. Walking is often the best way to play. I tried it on Easy mode to start so I could get the hang of game play. Though it was set to easy, Iron Man felt too invincible even for that mode. You never really feel in danger. I might try it on the harder difficulties but I see little reason in doing so. The gameplay is pretty much a mindless diversion with no real sense on what you're doing on where you're supposed to go. 

Moving onto the technical side. The graphics are dated looking, about on par with a 2005 game. Your Xbox 360 or PS3 isn't exactly going to break a sweat playing it, or at least you'd think so. I noticed some frame rate issues during action scenes. This seems to exist in both the 360 and PS3 versions according to other reviews. Given that there are more advanced games like this that run smooth as butter, I'd chop that up to sloppy coding. This is after all a demo based on the full version and not a pre-release so I expect the same issues to be in the full game. The draw distance also isn't that good and the graphics are blurry. I don't know if it's just that these games don't support 720p but they should since all PS3 games do. My monitor does a good job upscaling other titles to 1440x900 so I know my hardware isn't causing the blurries.
In the audio department, Robert Downy Jr returns to reprise his role of Iron Man from the movie. Voice acting is ok but once again, the sound isn't what you'd expect from a seventh generation game in 2008. 

Not much more I can really say about the demo. It clocks in at just under 950mb to download. Even though it's free, I'd pass and you should run away from the $60(!) retail version. I have to agree with IGN on this.  Like ET 25 years before it, this game is a sloppy mess cooked up in a short amount of time for the sole purpose of capitalizing off the movie. Thus is the fate of most movie based games. Given some thought, I think an Iron Man game might work well but this game just falls flat. 

What Works:
-Movie's actors reprise voice roles.
-Has potential should a non-movie base sequel be made. 

What Doesn't Work:
-Blurry, dated graphics. Frame rate issues.
-Wonky controls and bad controller layout
-Gameplay a touch on the mindless side
-Unimpressive audio
-Demo too short

Score: 3 out of 10

GRID Demo Review

By Mike on 5:06 pm

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Last year, Codemasters had a hit with Dirt, the latest in the Colin McRae racing series that was renamed after his untimely death. This year, Codemasters is releasing the next generation edition of Race Driver: GRID. The demo was made available today for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.

GRID is a bit of a small fish in a big pond. There aren't a lot of off-road racing games out there so Dirt was a shoe-in to be a hit. GRID however has a lot of competition, including Polyphony's venerable Gran Turismo series.

Grid is an on-road racer. It takes a different turn from other racers in the genre by adding a more in depth career mode. You start as a free lance amature racer. The better you do, you might get picked up by a professional team. The demo of course does not feature that, though it does have a competition in time trial mode to beat the top time for a prize. Kind of superfluous but it gets people to try the game. The game is divided into three parts. There's professional street racing in the US, grand touring in Europe, and drift competitions in Japan. The demo provides a taste of all three in the limited career mode. In the US, you drive a Ford Mustang GT in San Francisco, in Spain there is a grand touring track in a BMW, and in Japan there is a drift event at Yokohama in a Nissan. Time trial features the San Francisco Track and the Spanish track. There are only three cars and three tracks. Cars are locked to the specific tracks.

Onto technical. The graphics in GRID are fairly decent. The cars look realistic, not shiny and clean like in Gran Turismo. GRID also features one of the best damage models out of any racing game out there. As you race, if you hit something, you'll see realistic dents. Parts will fall off realistically, windows crack and break, tires wear out over many laps. When you or another driver looses a part off the car, that part will remain where it fell for the entire race, presenting a new obstacle. GRID however is not much different than Dirt was in this department. The games engine is the same, or at least looks the same as Dirt's was, just revamped for on road. One problem is that the graphics seemed a little dull and blurry. Also, Codemasters used HDR a little too liberally. This is one of the games I've talked about that overuses HDR as a method of putting lipstick on a pig. Not that GRID looks bad but the HDR really needs to be toned down.
Audio wise, the sound effects are nice. Cars make a realistic sound. A new feature in the game is name recognition. If you have a common name like I do, your team leader will call you by your name and you'll hear it over the loudspeakers at races. I must admit it's a little strange hearing a video game calling me by name but it's a nice touch.
For control, all of Dirt's bad habits have been transfered to GRID. If you're expecting a Gran Turismo 5 like experience, forget it. While the controls don't seem as sensitive this time around, the cars do feel very floaty. It's a more arcade like experience where the GT series goes for realism. Most of the time though, it feels like your driving on bald tires. The game play is what makes or breaks a game and Codemasters simply has not improved it.

If you like the arcade experience, then GRID might be worth considering. However, it can't hold a candle to GT5 Prologue. If you want to drive on-road, then I would stick with GT even if it doesn't have damage modelling. While that may be important for some people to achieve the ultimate in realism, GRID's controls are just too sloppy. You can download the demo to see for yourself. It weighs in at about 950mb. Lets get to the ratings.

What Works:
-Innovative career mode in full game
-Excellent damage modeling
-Nice snapshot of cars and tracks for the demo.
-Good sound effects, name recognition interesting

What Doesn't Work
-Blurry graphics, too much HDR
-Cars have a floating feeling. Unrealistic physics.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

The Death of the PC Game

By Mike on 4:05 pm

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Up until fairly recently, if you wanted a high power gaming system, you needed a Windows PC. When it comes to gaming, a PC has numerous advantages over a console, primarily in terms of customization. It's possible to stay ahead of the curve with the latest and greatest hardware or build a rig to suit your needs and budget. You also have access to more downloadable content and user made mods. However, PC gaming in the last couple of years has been sinking dramatically, along with the quality of the games. Last year, I went off on a rant about how poorly coded PC games were becoming and how the Bioshock demo messed up my computer. I also touched on this problem in my 10 ways to improve gaming list. The sad truth that a lot of enthusiasts are discovering is that PC gaming seems to be dying. The question is why.

Back in 2006, Microsoft issued it's "Games for Windows" badge for new titles. The idea was to establish the PC as a legitimate gaming platform and an alternative to consoles. Badged games would be compatible with the new Windows Vista and DirectX 10. Many gamers found they didn't like Vista since games did not perform as well under the new OS as they did under XP. However, Vista is not to blame for the sinking PC game market. Microsoft's "Games for Windows" attempt was a good idea but ultimately has collapsed under the backwards thinking game industry. So far this year, no major exclusive titles have been released for the PC platform. Crysis was one of the few exceptions, yet was a game that had insanely high system requirements. Looking through lists of upcoming titles, 2008 holds little promise despite the high number of blockbuster titles appearing on the three console systems.

The developers and publishers are to blame for the collapse of the PC game market, despite there being significant demand for new titles. The industry has become piracy obsessed. This has had a double barreled effect. Developers, due to piracy fears, no longer wish to publish for the PC platform. The second issue is the inclusion of digital rights management (DRM) which has become so intrusive in recent years, it has rendered many games unplayable.
In the case of the first problem, many games began to be released on torrents and P2P servers back in the early 2000s. It is true that many gamers do indeed download games, whether to steal them or as a try-before-buy method. In the case of the latter, PC games are not available for rent so buying can be a real gamble, especially at $60 a pop. If they don't like the game, chances are they won't keep it. If they do like it, they'll likely buy it. The former who steal titles I believe are in a very small minority. So far, there have been no objective studies into this but I believe the number of game pirates to be much smaller than reported.
However unwarranted, the fear of piracy persists. This has led to the punishment of legitimate gamers who legally purchased the game. Back in the mid-2000s, there was a debacle over the Starforce DRM scheme which planted rootkits into peoples computers without them knowing. Sony BMG got in a lot of trouble for doing the same thing since this is technically illegal to do. Further adding to the problem, these rootkits would wreak havoc on some peoples systems, causing crashes and slowdowns for no apparent reason. They were also difficult to remove. The fiasco led to many gamers boycotting games that used Starforce. This eventually led the industry to move away from this method, yet they did not learn the lessons from it. Recently, more games have come to use the SecuROM DRM method. This method of copy protection is the most intrusive to date. Like Starforce, it also installed rootkits without the user knowing. Furthermore, these rootkits are even more difficult to remove. It persists even if the game itself has been uninstalled and deleted from the user's hard drive. Often, reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling Windows is the only reliable method of deletion. A new feature also forces users to register the game online. Each game has a key code that is not necessarily unique. If yours happens to be a commonly pirated key, you can have access to installing your game blocked without warning even if you legally bought it. Furthermore, the number of "systems" the game can be installed on has been drastically limited. PC gamers who bought Bioshock discovered this. That particular game could be installed on up to five systems but users who reformatted their hard drive, using the same copy of Windows on the same system found that SecuROM still counted this as a different system. Electronic Arts is infamous for using this method and reports have come out that the PC versions of Spore and Mass Effect will contain the most restrictive SecuROM DRM to date. Originally, the scheme would phone home every two weeks to match it with known pirated keys. If it found one, it would abruptly stop you from using the program. EA recently bowed under huge public pressure to remove the "phone home" system. Another issue of concern for many users was that the game would be rendered a coaster if EA decided the game was no longer popular shut down their DRM servers that checked for legitimacy. Mass Effect was a game I was looking forward to buying but I've decided not to because of this mess. All this basically amounts to is treating legitimate gamers as common criminals. The problem is that games often do not state what the DRM restrictions are on the box. If they are in the EULA, that matters little since few people read through or even understand the legal mumbo jumbo it contains. Besides, why should you have to sign a damn legal contract just to play a game?! Further salt is added to the wound when you consider that once a game box is opened, you usually cannot return it. If something goes wrong, you've paid $60 for something that's now worthless. 
The deterrence argument of DRM makes no sense since those determined enough will always find a way around it. It boils down to deceiving and ripping off legitimate consumers. As a gamer, you can either put up with this garbage as game publishers further tighten their grip on your testicles, or you can move the the plug and play ease of consoles. Indeed, the latter is what a lot of gamers have chosen to do. With the introduction of HD gaming and the fact that the Xbox 360 and PS3 match or outperform most current gaming PCs at lower costs, switching to console makes sense for many.

Aside from DRM, PC games are also plagued with numerous other problems. I discussed the problems with sloppy coding extensively in a previous article. PC gamers are often left with what amounts to a public beta version of games when they first come out. You test the games while developers release patches ad infinitum for problems they should have found before they game was released. Once again, this is a case of deceiving customers. I don't buy the argument that there are too many hardware variables out there and that its impossible to have the game work for everybody. Every single PC out on the market right now supports x86 processor architecture, either DirectX or OpenGL graphics, Dolby Digital sound, and either Windows XP or Vista. It's not as if they're trying to make it run on different architectures, which is the issue with porting Xbox 360 games to the PS3 and vice versa. I have simply bought too many games that I could not get to run on what amounts to a typical system, despite vastly exceeding the system requirements. This is just poor workmanship on the developer's part. It just shows they have no pride in what they're doing and that volume sales is being put before quality. Ironically, the games that sell the most historically were the ones that put quality over everything else. In the 1990s when PC gaming was in a golden age, these problems didn't exist or at least not to the extent they are today. Not all PC games are like this but buying them has certainly become a craps shoot. Gamers simply are not going to keep putting up with paying $60 for garbage. Unfortunately, this issue has begun to enter into consoles now as well. Take Valve's hack kneed attempted at porting Orange Box to the PS3. When problems were found, gamers were basically told to "go screw" by the developer and publisher. There is absolutely no excuse for this.

Not all is lost though. Some game developers have chosen to go a different route. When Stardock announced space real-time strategy game Sins of a Solar Empire would ship without DRM, the rest of the industry thought they were insane. So far, Sins has sold over 200,000 units, which is respectable for a title that has received almost no mainstream advertising. The industry had honestly figured the game would not do anywhere near as well due to piracy fears. Stardock's answer to these fears was simple. If you make quality, well made game and sell it for a good price, people will pay for it. What a revolutionary notion that people don't want to pay for crap! Out of the box, Sins worked. There were no bugs or issues. The game is challenging and entertaining, not something that you play for two hours and have beaten it. Given the amount of awful PC games out there that have a short live experience and are plagued with bugs due to sloppy coding, Sins was a breath of fresh air.

So is there any hope for PC gaming? At this point, I really can't be optimistic. The way the entire industry does business has to change. Right now, we're stuck sandwiched between three big companies, EA, Activision, and UBIsoft, who all think and act the same. They're buying up every single small developer they can get their hands on. As soon as EA bought BioWare, one of the most revered North American RPG developers, they ruined them. That certainly needs to stop. The industry as a whole should take a page from Stardock. PC gaming can be as easy as console gaming but they need to put their baseless piracy fears aside and start hiring competent programers in order to develop titles worth buying. At this point though, PC gaming is dead to me.

Keeping your PC Chilly Part 3: Exotic Methods

By Mike on 2:21 pm

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I thought I'd finish off the PC cooling guide with some of the more exotic cooling methods. This isn't a how-to but rather just some info on some of the more unorthodox methods of keeping the heat down. One of the problems with both air and water cooling is that they can only cool to ambient air temperature. That's assuming 100% efficiency, which is impossible. The more exotic methods, however, can cool your CPU to sub-zero temperatures. 

Thermal-Electric Cooling (TEC): 
TEC cooling is starting to become a little more common place. This method is sometimes referred to as Peltier cooling. It's best described as a solid state heat pump. Without going into the science of how it works, it uses an electrical current to make one side of a conductive plate hot, while the other side is made very cold. This allows a processor to be chilled to below ambient temperature. The hot side is usually cooled using either conventional air or water methods. It's a cheap way of doing this but consumes quite a bit of power in order to be effective. It also doesn't completely eliminate the need for water or air. Some commercial coolers such as the Monsoon II use TEC cooling combined with air but their performance is mixed.

Phase Change Cooling:
Most people are familiar with phase change cooling. Your refrigerator uses this method, as well as most air conditioners.  It works by using a compressor to compress a gas to a liquid, making it hot. A heat exchanger removes the heat from the liquid. The liquid expands and is converted to a super cooled, high pressure gas. The cold gas cycles through tubes to your processor where it removes the heat. It is then cycled back to the compressor and exchanger to be converted back into a liquid and dump the heat. This is perhaps the ultimate cooler you can buy off a store shelf, though they are very uncommon. There are a few reasons why nobody uses these. First of all, they're expensive to both buy and operate. I only personally know of one place that sells these and the cheapest one I could find was $800. You can buy an entire full size fridge for that. A high end, custom water cooling system will only cost half. The cheapest one I found also consumes 440w of electricity, which is as much as an entire typical high end computer does. The second downside is that the units are exceedingly large. They're about half the height of a mid-tower case. They also require you to drill a hole in the case to fit the hose inside. Lian-Li does make pre-modded cases for these coolers though. Lastly, these systems are typically designed to cool the processor only. An air or water system will still be required to cool other components such as the GPU.  Therefore, while they offer the best off-the-shelf cooling performance of any other method, they are impractical and unnecessary. Most modern processors, even ones heavily overclocked, do not need this much cooling. 

Dry Ice and Liquid Nitrogen:
The most exotic cooling method I've seen is the use of liquid nitrogen or dry ice. This is the ultimate sub-zero cooling method. You can't buy parts for these. Typically, people using these make custom, home-made setups. Liquid nitrogen is exactly that, nitrogen that has been cooled so much it becomes a liquid. Dry ice is carbon dioxide cooled enough to become solid. Dry ice is warmer than liquid nitrogen but both are very cold. They offer the ultimate in cooling but are also clumsy, dangerous, and hugely impractical. These cannot be used for everyday use. Typically, these methods are only used in overclocking competitions that push processors beyond their limits. 

The Problem of Condensation:
Aside from the problems I've mentioned, all sub-zero methods of computer cooling present a single challenge. Moisture. When objects are cooled below ambient, condensation forms. Since water conducts electricity, condensation can fry your components. Therefore, the processor based has to be sealed with silicone in order to prevent moisture from touching electrical contacts. This additional step is not necessary with air or water.

Oil Cooling:
See the electrical transformer pots on your street. These are cooled using oil,  a passive cooling method. Oil, like water, can hold and release more heat than air can. A couple of years ago, Tom's Hardware displayed a computer cooled with cooking oil. Oil is a non conductive substance so it was possible to submerge all components in a sealed case full of off the shelf cooking oil. The system has the advantage of running in near complete silence. This method presents a few obvious problems. First of all, it's dirty. You will need to periodically change the oil and you will likely never get all the grease off your components. Secondly, the entire case must be water tight, with all connections and wires sealed with silicone. This has not deterred some users. Some people claim more success with using motor oil. As with several other exotic methods, oil cooling is impractical. It also requires the processor bases to be sealed as with the sub-zero methods and it still requires heat sinks. Like air and water, it is an ambient cooling method, meaning the computer cannot possible get cooler than ambient air temperature. Therefore, it's just easier to use air or water. 

Passive Cooling: 
Passive air cooling isn't really an exotic method but it is not as common as active air and water. However, it has seen a resurgence in interest from the home theater PC crowd looking for systems to be absolutely silent. How it works is simple. It uses very large heatsinks with more surface area to dispurse heat to the air without using fans. Apple uses a passive hybrid system in some of their computers. Hybrid passive systems (which is a name I made up) have a fan that only kicks in if the component being cooled reaches a certain temperature. The fan shuts off once a safe temperature is reached. Therefore, they are quiet most of the time. These systems are typically used for processors with lower clocks and overclocking with them is not really possible. However, they are a must when silence is golden. Passive water systems also exist, such as Zalman's Reserator series. These systems use very large fanless radiators but still have a pump. There was also a German company making these but the name escapes me.

General Cooling Tips:
I thought I'd end up with some general cooling tips to improve your computer's cooling performance. First of all, keep the system tidy. In the case of air cooling, tuck any necessary internal cables out of the way so airflow is unobstructed. Make sure to remove any dust from radiators or heat sinks regularly using compressed gas tins and not a vacuum. Vacuums can build up static electricity. Dust acts as a surprisingly good insulator for heat so getting rid of it is important. For water, check the system on a monthly basis for clogs and corrosion and change the coolant periodically. Flow meters can be bought to monitor performance. 
The place where you keep your computer is also important. You want to keep the system in a cool, dry place away from heat sources. These include direct sun, heat vents, household radiators, portable heaters, etc. Ideal room temperature should not get above 25c (77f) for optimum cooling. You should invest in at least a window air conditioner for your computer room for the summer months, or you can keep it in a cool basement off the floor.

Keeping Your PC Chilly Part 2: Liquid Cooling

By Mike on 10:47 am

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Liquid cooling is a more exotic cooling method used mostly by enthusiasts. You're probably most familiar with this type of cooling as it is used in your car. There isn't a heck of a lot of difference between automotive liquid cooling and the type used for PCs. They feature the same basic components and cool in the same manner. Using liquid to cool your PC is more expensive than air but it can be more efficient. Water is able to hold a tremendous amount of heat and releases it relatively quickly. I'm not really an expert on liquid cooling, but I feel letting beginners know a little bit about it complements my air cooling article. Lets go over the basics.

First of all, chances are you probably don't need liquid cooling. In the past few years, processors have become a lot more efficient and thus do not produce as much heat as they used to. Even if you are doing some overclocking, chances are you can get by on a good air cooling setup. High end air can be just as good or in some cases better than liquid cooling, especially if you're using cheaper liquid cooling kits.

Liquid cooling is more expensive than air since it requires several additional components. For a basic setup, you'll need some hose, connectors and ties, a CPU waterblock, pump, and radiator. More elaborate setups will include waterblocks for the GPU, motherboard chipset, RAM, hard drives, PSU, and even MOSFETs. One common misconception is that liquid cooling completely eliminates the need for air cooling. Unless you're doing the elaborate setup I mentioned, you'll still need fans to cool those other components. You'll also need a fan for the radiator. However, there are some passively cooled water kits available such as Zalman's Reserator series. Liquid cooling will usually cut down on noise since it uses less fans than air setups. If you're a beginner, a kit is a good place to start. However, try to stay away from cheap ones such as ones by Thermaltake. You really get what you pay for and there's a lot of nightmare stories out there of people having cheap kits leak or the pumps fail. Another warning is that water is considerably higher maintenance since you have to periodically change the coolant, unlike air which just needs a quick dusting from time to time. For basic cooling, the CoolIT Systems series such as the Freezone, Pure, and Eliminator are self contained units which require no maintenance. CoolIT's products have been high rated and are good to test the waters (no pun intended) of liquid CPU cooling. Swiftech is another well know kit manufacturer. Their kits are not pre-assembled but include all the stuff you need. As with air cooling, there are a lot of choices for kits so do your research to find the one that suits you best.

The first parts to discuss are the water blocks. This is usually a chunk of copper with channels inside. It draws heat away from components to the water. There's not a heck of a lot of difference between an air cooled heatsink and a water cooled water block other than the cooling medium. The blocks have hose fittings that come in a variety of sizes. There's not really much to say here. Danger Den is known for making good water blocks but once again, check what else available. I don't want people commenting saying "that part sucks".
Your second part in the chain is tubing of course. Common sizes are 1/4'', 3/8'', and 1/2''. Other sizes are available. Bigger tubing can carry more water and thus more heat but you corresponding fittings on the other parts to match. You can't put a tube on a fitting that's either too small or too large.
The third part in the chain is radiators. Your radiator is where the hot water goes to be cooled and it works in the same way your car's does. A series of tubes and fins for dispersing heat into the air. Some computer radiators are passive such as the Reserator I mentioned earlier. However, most use an active fan to cool. As with air cooling, it's best to use one that accommodates 120mm fans. Some can accommodate up to four 120mm fans. However, for typical use, I would use one fan if only cooling the CPU and two for CPU and graphics. The bigger units should be used for heavy overclocking. The radiator usually mounts on the outside of your computer case. Brackets are available to direct the water tubes out of an empty expansion slot up to the radiator. They also sometimes include power connectors to connect the fans to your computer's internal PSU. Once again, rads by Swiftech or Danger Den are a good choice.
The last major part in the chain is your pump, which circulates water. These small DC pumps usually run off your computer's internal PSU but some run off their own external power using an AC adapter. This is the one part you don't want to skimp on since if the pump fails, you could fry your computer. I do not recommend pumps by Thermaltake since they are prone to an early death. Look for high flow about 500L/hr from a well known brand such as Danger Den or Swiftech. You don't always need to spend a lot to get a quality one. The Danger Den DD-CPX1 pump is only $50.
From there, you'll also need fittings and connectors to connect and secure your tubing. You'll also need some way to fill and empty coolant from the system. For beginners, a reservoir is a good idea. These plastic units fit in an empty 5 1/4'' drive bay. Some people just use drain and fill ports but the reservoir is probably easier and more convenient. For the coolant itself, you need to use distilled water. Tap water contains things such as algae and lime in it which can gum up the pipes and cause corrosion. Distilled water can be bought cheaply enough at drug stores, grocery stores, and autoparts stores. For added safety, you can buy non-conductive coolant, which doesn't conduct electricity like water does. Some coolant dyes are available which make it look pretty but are not necessary.

In order to build your water cooling setup, I recommended starting with it kit. It will provide instructions on how to do it. It requires more work and planning than installing air cooling does. I recommend cutting everything to size and then assembling the unit outside your computer. Fill it with coolant making sure there's no air in the system. You need to do this to test for leaks and that everything is in working order. To do this, you'll need to take the power supply out of your computer and hook the pump up to it. Most power supplies have to be connected to the motherboard to start. However, there is a way to jump start them. Take a small piece of copper wire and bridge pins 13 and 14 on the motherboard connector. On an ATX PSU, one will be a skinny green wire and the other a black ground wire. Make sure you only bridge these two pins! From there, leave the pump running for an hour, periodically checking for leaks. If something is leaking, there's a hole in the line or you didn't connect the fittings properly, you'll see it now rather than later when the leak can do serious damage. If everything is good, drain the coolant, take everything apart, dry it out, and then install it in your system. Water blocks install in the same way heatsinks do and also require thermal paste. With everything back in the computer, fill it up with coolant, prime the air out, and repeat the leak test. Once again, only hook the pump up to the PSU and nothing else, and jump start it. Don't worry if water leaks onto your components as long as they're not plugged in, just let them dry out thoroughly for a couple of days. If the system passes the final leak, your good to hook your components back up and you can start using the computer. Once again, a burn in is required to set the thermal paste before you can overclock.

As you can see, water cooling is not for the hurried. It takes a lot of time and careful planning. Rushing installation can spell disaster so take your time. Just remember not to expect stellar results. Water cooling cannot cool below the ambient room temperature, just as air cannot. However, it does remove more heat more quickly so is ideal for heavy overclocking. It can also be a bit quieter. Air is still good enough for most people but water can make an interesting project.

Keeping Your PC Chilly Part 1: Air Cooling

By Mike on 9:41 am

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I thought I'd do a bit on PC cooling. I'm not really going to recommend any specific products here though I can point you in the right direction. Lets start with basics. Heat is the enemy of all electronics. Take the Xbox 36o for example who's primary issues were the result of poor cooling. Too much heat can shorten the lifespan of components. If safety limits are exceeded, too much heat can ever fry your processors. That's why good cooling is one of the most important aspects to consider when building or upgrading a system. There are two ways to cool computers these days. Air cooling is the most popular and its a veteran of the computing world. It uses fans that circulate air through the casing and over heat-sinks to cool processors. Another method is liquid cooling, which pumps coolant through hoses to a series of water-blocks. The coolant is typically distilled water with anti algae and corrosion chemicals added. Liquid cooling isn't common but it has become more popular in recent years. I'll cover the basics of both. Furthermore, there are more exotic methods such as using thermal-electric cooling, oil, dry ice, etc. Since these are experimental, I won't discuss them.

Air Cooling:

A good air cooling system for a PC requires three component categories. Heat-sinks, fans, and a case. The key here is moving as much cool air into the case as possible while getting all the hot air out. In the past, most PC cases just featured one or two exhaust fans and relied on vents to bring in cool air. Using intake fans gets in more cooler air faster though so most cases now include them. Fans come in various sizes and types. Your typical PC these days will feature either 80mm or 120mm fans. The former being the most common for off the shelf models while the latter is common in better cases designed for gaming. 120mm fans are the best to use since they can move more air than smaller 80mm ones. Since they're bigger, they also don't need to turn as fast to move more air so they're inherently quieter. The general rule is the bigger the fan, the quieter it is . Larger fans do cost more but they're better in the long run. Some case designs, however, won't fit the larger fans so you're probably going to be stuck with 80mm in those cases.
Balance is key here. You want as much cool air coming in as hot air going out. Remember that your power supply (PSU) also has a fan and that it draws air from inside the case to cool it so that counts as one of your fans. So we need to balance things so say your power supply has a 120mm fan and the case has a single 120mm exhaust fan. Therefore, an ideal setup would be to have two 120mm intake fans. Sometimes that's hard to do but try to keep it set to more heat going out if you can't match your ideal since cool air will still be passively pulled in from the outside through vents. A typical mid-tower case these days will usually have one slot for a fan at the front by the drive bay, two slots at the back of the case, your PSU fan, and a side fan. Mid-tower are the most common case type. The best setup is to set the front and side fans to intake. The front fan brings in cool air to cool the drives and addon cards while the side fan brings cool air into the CPU heat-sink. The PSU and back fan should exhaust the heat. Larger full tower cases such as CoolerMaster's excellent CM Stacker series will have more fan slots on both the front and back but the same rule of balance still applies. 

Heat-sinks. There's a large variety of them out there. Some flashy, some rather ugly. While it is tempting to get a pretty heatsink if you have a case window, remember to put form over function. A lot of these pretty heatsinks don't cool worth crap. The stock heatsinks that come with your CPU or graphics card usually do an ok job but moving to third party ones will allow your processors to run much cooler and quieter, and even leave more room for some overclocking. Most stock Intel and AMD CPU heatsinks are a chunk of aluminum with fins, a mirror finished bottom, and an 80mm or 92mm fan on the top. Third party ones will usually use copper or a mix of copper and aluminum. Copper absorbs a lot of heat quickly. Aluminum can't absorb as much heat but it likes to get rid of it fast due to it being a lighter element. A typical enthusiast heatsink will feature a copper base with thin aluminum fins. Becoming more popular is heat-pipe technology. Heat pipes are filled with an easily vaporizable liquid. They use capillary action to move the fluid. As it heats up, it vaporizes and rises up where the heat is transfered to the fins. It then moves back to a liquid and falls back down. This is more efficient that just using the older fin and block design. The block and heat pipes are usually made of copper while the fins are usually aluminum though some companies such as Zalman use copper. The liquid used in these pipes is a trade secret. I recommend using this type of cooler since they are more efficient. Buy heat sinks that accommodate a 120mm fan provided they will fit in your case. The fan on top pushes air into/through the heat sink and is more efficient than using passive fanless designs. Good ones to buy include the Thermaltake Big Typhoon, Tuniq Tower, or Thermalright Ultra 120. These aren't your only options so make sure you check out comparative reviews of coolers to see how they stack up against each other. 
To install your cooler, simply follow the instructions that came with it for your specific CPU socket type. The type of socket your processor uses will be indicated in your motherboard manual though current Intel desktop boards use LGA775 while AMD ones use Socket AM2. You'll probably have to remove the motherboard to install the cooler. First off all, you'll need to do some cleaning. Your old fan will have left thermal paste on the processor. Use a cotton ball or q-tip along with a 70% rubbing alcohol solution to remove the paste from the processor top. Most processors these days are covered with a metal plate protecting the core itself but if the core is exposed, just be a little more delicate. Even if the processor is new, you should still clean it, as well as the base of your new cooler. The next step is applying new thermal paste. Some will come with your cooler but I recommend using a silver based paste for optimal cooling. What thermal paste does is fill in any micro gaps between the processor and the heatsink base. DO NOT leave this step out or you risk frying your processor. I recommend using either Arctic Silver 5 or Antec Fromula 5 thermal paste. The former is widely considered to be the best but the latter is more widely available. Both use silver particles. Silver is one of the best elements for heat transfer but it's obviously impractical to use it for heatsinks. Silver paste is not as expensive as it sounds and a little goes a long way. Use a piece of card to spread a thin layer over the entire exposed processor core or the metal plate if it has one. Be sure not to get that stuff on any of the electrical contacts or you risk damaging your CPU. Once done, gently set the cooler onto the processor and attach it with the provided brackets. If it screws onto the motherboard, make sure to tighten the bolts firmly, but not to tight to avoid cracking the board. Next, plug the cooler's fan into the motherboard's CPU fan header, close up the case, and fire it up. You'll need to do a burn in to set the thermal paste before you try any overclocking. That simply means running the processor at full load on stock speeds for maybe 20min to half an hour. One final note on thermal paste. Make sure it's thermal paste and not thermal adhesive. The latter of which is a glue which will permanently attach the heatsink to the processor. 

You can also upgrade the heatsink on most graphics cards. The stock coolers on graphics cards tend to be either barely adequate or vary noisy so upgrading them makes sense. I personally recommend looking at Zalman's VF900 series but as with CPU coolers, you have a lot of choices. You'll need to check compatibility with the fan you want to buy, which is usually listed on their website. It's done in the same way as with the CPU. You can also upgrade the cooling for other components such as RAM and chipsets. These generally don't need additional cooling beyond stock. The CPU fan will blow cool air onto the RAM as well as the CPU heatsink. Another way to improve cooling is cable management. This basically means moving electrical and data cables inside the case out of the way to prevent them from disrupting airflow. Power supplies with modular cables are a big help here since unused power cables can be removed or added as needed. 
There you have it, you've learned about basic air cooling. Part 2 will cover basic water cooling.