Savage's $11,000 Phone Bill

By Mike on 11:00 pm

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Are cell phone companies gouging their customers? Myth Confirmed. Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame got a rude awakening after AT&T charged $11,000 in roaming fees for web surfing he did while vacationing in Montreal. The company charges a rate of $0.015/kilobyte for out of country internet usage, which works out to 750 megabytes worth of data. Savage claims he was just using the service to browse a few websites for a couple hours over the entire week long trip and wasn't downloading videos or pictures. Upon getting the shock of his life, the famed special effects artist and TV host posted his complaint on Twitter. It soon became the number two thread following the death of Michael Jackson. After the Twitter complaints stirred up a massive response and his assistant spending hours on the phone with AT&T, the company eventually agreed to drop the charges. “A lot of people on Twitter are saying, ’Well it’s great that it worked for you, because you’ve got 50,000 followers, but what about the rest of us?’ ” Savage said. “And I totally agree with them.”

Adam Savage fights the machine and wins, once again proving his status as the Geek God. In his defence, it is vary hard to use 750mb just surfing web pages. Back when I was in college, we had a 1gb per week allocation for the university wifi. Even listening to internet radio between classes, I never broke 200mb per week. You'd have to be watching a heck of a lot of flash video or downloading vary large files. This whole debacle exposes some major issues with the cell industry and the way it charges customers. For example, I pay $44.95 per month for high speed internet. That gets me 60gb of data transfer, which works out to roughly $0.75 per gigabyte. By contrast, Rogers/Fido's usual 3G data plan costs $30 per month for 1gb. Therefore, using 3G internet costs 40x more than using cable broadband. Furthermore, Cogeco cable also provides me with email service included in the price, something Rogers Wireless does not offer. I admit I do love being able to view web content on the go but I can't help but wonder whether the convenience is worth that much.
I'm not picking on any company in particular here since they all do it. (So Rogers don't sue me.) Savage's dilema shows just how archaic cell companies treat data. While most other service providers charge you by the megabyte or by the gigabyte when you go over your limit, cellular data plans charge per kilobyte. Back in the days of 28kbps dialup internet, this may have been acceptable but to charge per kilobyte in the age of broadband is simply gouging. Roughly speaking, an average five minute song at 256mbps quality off iTunes would cost $0.33 to download over mobile broadband, a third of it's retail value. More shockingly, if you're out of country the same song would cost a whopping $172 under AT&T's roaming fees. By contrast, the same song would cost only $0.008 to download over cable. That gives you something to think about next time you consider downloading songs or apps using 3G on your iPhone.
Phone and text services aren't much better. Fido's cheapest plan costs $0.30/minute ($15 for 50 minutes) while landline local calls are unlimited. Bell Home Phone Lite for example costs $22.95/month for unlimited local calling. Long distance cell rates are $0.35/minute anywhere in Canada. By contrast, $0.15 or less is typical for landlines. VOIP through your cable company usually runs $40 for unlimited local and long distance calling including features such as call display and answering services. For cell phones, these same additional services are usually $5-$10/month extra. Texting is the most costly feature of all, with average price being $0.15 a message with many companies now charging to both send AND receive them. This means you'll also have to pay for any spam received, which is increasingly becoming a problem. A one minute phone conversation costs the same as a single text back and forth. I know I can say a lot more in a minute than I can write in a text. With the average email several paragraphs long being around 20kb, well, you get the idea. It's a heck of a lot cheaper to use conventional services.

So why are mobile services considerably more expensive than their landline counterparts? Cell companies usually try to dodge this question when it is asked. However, there are a couple of legitimate reasons for this. Namely wireless bandwidth is far more limited than wired bandwidth given that cell phones must share the radio spectrum with a gaggle of other devices. Cables using digital transmission don't have this limitation and therefore can accommodate far more people using them at one time. So you pay more for a volatile resource. Cell companies might be able to weakly justify charging double the rate for phone calls but it's vary difficult to do the same thing with text and data services that cost up to fourty times more than vastly superior landlines. The government has already stepped in, threatening to ban receiving charges for texts, and rightly so. Srinivasan Keshav, a leading Canadian based computer scientist estimates that text messages cost cell companies no more than 0.3 cents. That represents a markup of 4,900%. So for every 10,000 texts sent, it costs cell providers $30 but they receive $1,500, equating to $1,470 in pure profit. No other business would get away with that. (Well except maybe a certain company who sells HDMI cables.) Consumers need to start putting the pressure on cell companies to bring their rates down to something that's more comparable with landlines, especially now with so many replacing home phones with their cells. They're gouging, pure and simple. I haven't even begun to rant about the contracts they force you to sign either.


MMN's Top Five Most Overrated Games

By Mike on 6:48 pm

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Ever heard somebody say how great a game is, or a lot of people for that matter. So you say it must be great so you go out and buy it or rent it. Then you realize you've been had. The game just doesn't live up to what your friends have been telling you. It's not to say they're bad games but they're just... meh. Here's my top ten most overrated games, in no particular order. To get on this list, I have to have played them.

God of War Series (Playstation 2, PSP)
The God of War series, featuring the fallen Greek god of war Kratos has become the de facto standard for melee beat-em-ups. The series is also said to be one of the best on the Playstation, ever. It has spawned imitations such as Heavenly Sword and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. While the gratuitous sex and violence ropes you in, the games themselves are only so so. God of war looks good, the story is good, but like so many good games gone bad, the controls are an issue. Namely they can be sluggish at times or the button pressing action sequences often don't give you enough time to react. Sometimes the controls won't respond at all. To add insult to injury, the game is vary unclear regarding objectives and can it can be quite frustraiting at times. Overall, the entire God of War series just feels stiff to play. Hopefully this is fixed for its third outing.

Bioshock (PC, Xbox 360, PS3)
Bioshock was named one of 2007's best games by the press and gamers alike. However, when I played it, I quickly discovered it was another typical console shooter, but with super powers and a moral system along the lines of Jedi Knight. It looked fantastic but there was really nothing special or innovative about the gameplay. Plus it had a lot of technical flaws, especially in the PC version.

Fallout 3 (PC, Xbox 360, PS3)
Wow, for a game about a post-apocalyptic war zone, this title is boring. While the Mad Max elements are there, you spend a great deal of time just looking for items or a bed to recover health around the Capital Wastes. There really isn't a lot of meat to the main story either. Enemies in the game tend to fall into two camps: annoying or nearly invincible. I find Fallout 3 gets stressful and tedious to play after sitting with it for more than an hour at a time. Unfortunately you do need to spend hours on end to get anything accomplished. I wish I had bought the PC version. At least that has cheats. Whatever happened to the fun cheats that used to be in console titles? No more big head, paintball, or god mode. Sigh.

Metal Gear Solid 4 (PS3)
Another game I found tedious and stressful to play. Complex controls, a lot of slow moving from point A to point B, and so much cheese in the dialogue, it would makes the French jealous.

Lock On: Modern Air Combat (PC)
As readers will know, I hate this game with a passion. It's just so bad. However, back in my flight simming days, a lot of people talked about how great it was. In reality it was so broken the game was unplayable on pretty much any computer I threw it on. I doubt my Phenom II and HD 3850 would do much better since the original system I had vastly exceeded the recommended (not just the minimum!) requirements.

Echochrome (PS3, PSP)
Like watching paint dry, that's how I describe this game. Bland, colourless, and boring, it belongs more as a looped video exhibit at a university art gallery. There's little point to it and certainly nothing pretty to look at. I guess the living-Escher painting idea is interesting but as a game it turned out as incredibly dull. A bit like watching Sinefeld reruns. I have no idea why so many people love this title.

The Legend of Zelda: The Phanton Hourglas (DS)
It's a Zelda game but not like any other Zelda game. Not as out there as Zelda II was but a black sheep none the less. Obviously designed for young kids, a lot of adult gamers professed their love for this title. I found it boring and way too easy. Plus who wants to talk to their game on the subway? The story was also pretty dumb too. I can't believe Nintendo actually made a sequel to this game using the same formula. If you want portable Zelda games, get the Gameboy and Gameboy Advance titles.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Genesis)
Widely considered to be the best in the original trilogy of Sonic games, I only found this one to be so so. It's certainly not equal to Sonic 3 by any means and lacked the charm Sonic 1 had. The Spin Dash was neat and Super Sonic was cool if you ever could beat all 7 special stages, which were known for their punishing difficulty. The Sonic Team actually toned the difficulty on them down for the Sonic 2 & Knuckles expansion. Tails was also a pointless addition to this game since all his powers were identical to Sonic, and in co-op play, he just got in the way. He didn't become useful until Sonic 3.

Star Wars: Battlefront II (PC)
Hugely popular but the single player campaigns sucked. There seems to be no way to avoid dying in them every two seconds. Hero characters were pointless.

Echo the Dolphin (Genesis)
This is on everybody's must have list of Genesis and Sega CD titles. I don't know why because this game is so incredibly boring, long, and difficult. There's not much to gameplay, the sonar attack is useless, and it just seems to go on forever. Another one of those titles that looks pretty but has no substance to it. Who would have thought dolphins didn't make good videogame characters!

Rogers to Allow iPhone Tethering

By Mike on 11:31 pm

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I got a text from FIDO today saying that iPhone owners with Firmware 3.0 will be allowed to tether their phones to a laptop and use it as a 3G Internet stick. The only catch is that you must have a minimum 1gb data plan with the phone, which costs $30 per month. No additional fees apparently, which is good news for those who were concerned that there would be. Unfortunately, Rogers and FIDO still do not offer unlimited data plans like AT&T does. The best plan is $80 a month for a 5gb cap, which is pretty pathetic.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine Demo Review

By Mike on 9:57 pm

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Movie based games have traditionally been... well... just awful. So of course I was a little sceptical when X-Men Origins: Wolverine landed on the PSN Store a couple weeks ago. After all, the movie its based on got fairly bad reviews and sits with a dismal 36% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I haven't seen the movie yet but the game can't be any better, can it? ... Holy crap, this game is good, damn good.

You play as Wolverine naturally, who is based on Hugh Jackman's character from the movie, who actually looks and sounds like the actor for a change. That's because Jackman actually voices him. That's a good start but it wasn't good enough to hold up Iron Man. The game itself is a God of War clone. The controls are pretty much identical complete with light and heavy melee attacks, being able to throw enemies, lunging at them, special combos, etc. If you want details, read my God of War: Chains of Olympus review. The gameplay is pretty much the same. One of the tings that really took me back though was just how incredibly violent Origins is. You can literally rip your enemies to shreds complete with satisfying squirts of blood and flying limbs going everywhere. Even Kratos must be a little jealous. (I bet that would be one heck of a battle but my money is still on Kratos) As you progress, you level up and gain new skills in a fashion similar to The Force Unleashed. Gameplay is a touch repetative though but overall satisfying.
Level design is good in the game with colourful and varied environments. The demo level is a cliched tropical rain forest setting. It offers a wide variety of features to show off the game from melee fights, boss battles, and even some platforming & wall climbing. Raven has done a good job at bringing the world of Wolverine to life.

The technical side of this game is overall average. The demo at least looks good but it's not on the same level as a lot of other PS3 games like Uncharted or God of War III. Textures can look a little washed at times. Audio is solid though and its nice to hear Jackman actually voice the character. It's little things like that turn a average game into a good one. Some comments in IGN's review have suggested that the game does have some technical flaws, namely freezing. I didn't see these in the demo though but then again, that's only a small slice of the game. Freezing seems to happen on both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions.

For a movie based game, Origins: Wolverine is a vary nice, well polished title. That's rare for a genre that has built an infamous reputation over the last twenty-five years. The game isn't exactly original but its solid and fun, even if it does get repetitive after a while. Then again, even God of War could be accused of the same thing. It's the best X-Men game I've played since the classic and highly regarded Genesis title.

What Works
-Solid gameplay
-Good level design
-Satisfyingly violent, definitely not for the feint of heart
-Hugh Jackman reprises his voice as Wolverine

What Doesn't Work
-Textures appear washed
-Freezing problems reported on both Xbox 360 and PS3
-Lack of originality in gameplay, almost a direct clone of God of War

Score: 8 out of 10

Windows 7 Release Candidate First Look

By Mike on 10:00 pm

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It's not often I talk about operating systems and such because quite frankly, they're boring. Still, anybody running a tech site cannot help but get caught up in the Mac vs PC debate. We've all seen the commercials as both sides try to get the upper hand on each other. The truth for Microsoft is that Windows Vista, the anticipated successor the the venerable Windows XP, was a disaster when it first came out. It was and largely still is plagued with software and hardware incompatibilities and required significantly more computing power than previous generational jumps did. I'm not saying Vista is necessarily a bad OS but it's not a good one either. Microsoft spent a great deal of time playing catch up to Mac OS X and Linux in terms of features and ease of use, but the end product felt incomplete and more difficult to use than it should have been. After only about a year, Windows 7 was announced as the successor to Vista and it will release on October 22nd. Microsoft is promising there won't be the hiccoughs this time. Buyers of new systems will, as usual, have Windows 7 forced onto them. The questions are whether it is something that can rival OS X and XP and whether it's actually worth upgrading to. For this review, I'm using the Windows 7 Ultimate Release Candidate 64-bit version.

Benchmark: Memory Foot Print

I could drone on about new features but what people are really interested in is performance. I've compiled a brief benchmark looking at memory usage. Here we have two test systems, both with fairly similar configurations that balance each other out.

Windows 7 Test System
Processor: AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ "Manchester" 2.00ghz
Motherboard: ASRock 939Dual-SATA2
Memory: 2gb (2x 1gb) DDR-400 PC3200
Graphics: ATI Radeon HD 3850 256mb GDDR3 PCIe
Audio: Creative Labs Soundblaster X-FI XtremeMusic
HDD: Maxtor 7200rpm 80gb PATA (Win 7), Samsung 7200rpm 80gb SATA (XP), WD 7200rpm 500gb SATA
Optical: LG DVD+RW 16x Multi Drive, LG 16x10x40x CDRW
Operating Systems: Windows 7 Release Candidate 64-bit, Windows XP Home SP3 32-bit

Comparison System
Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo P7350 "Penryn" 2.00ghz
Motherboard: Apple Macbook (Late 2008)
Memory: 2gb (2x 1gb) DDR3-1066mhz
Graphics: nVidia Geforce 9400M 256mb shared DDR3
Audio: nVidia integrated
HDD: 160gb 5400rpm SATA
Optical: Apple Superdrive
Operating Systems: Windows Vista Home Premium SP2 64-bit, Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.7

Idle Memory Usage:
Looking at how much memory an operating system consumes is one of the best judges of performance and it's simple to test. Both test systems have the same amount of memory. What we're interested in seeing is how much each operating system consumes, notably whether Windows 7 uses less than Vista as claimed. Both systems are left at idle on the desktop with only an antivirus program (all Windows systems are using the same version of Avast) and task manager running in the background. Areoglass was set to maximum and three widgets were open. Mac OS X was run with just the desktop and eight Dashboard widgets open.

Windows 7: 34% or approx 696.2 MiB in use
Windows Vista: 45% or approx. 806.5 MiB in use

Mac OS X Leopard: 20% or approx. 409 MiB in use
Windows XP: 28% or approx. 574.9 MiB in use

I'm sure nobody is surprised by the Windows results. Vista has the largest idle memory footprint in it's stock configuration than any other operating system, using nearly half of the 1,792 MiB available for it. Windows XP uses the least amount of ram, using just over a quarter of 2 GiB. Windows 7 sits in between the two, using a respectable 34% memory footprint, so indeed Microsoft has leaned it out considerably. It also shows how bloated Vista actually is and why most Vista systems today ship with a minimum 2gb. To give you some idea, 2gb largely still is the standard for XP based gaming systems while Vista needs double to perform the same task. The Mac OS X Leopard results are interesting though. OS X seems to fluctuate on idle from between about 360 MiB to about 460 MiB; with around 409 being the average. Activity Manager seems to calculate this as being a division of the whole 2gb available, meaning a 20% memory foot print. Even if we calculate this by taking out the RAM allocated to graphics, it's still a respectable 22.8%. Arguably OS X is tailor-made for specific hardware but even so, it is considerably lighter than all Windows operating systems while providing similar visual styling and the same functionality. OS X wins this round but Windows 7 shows a major improvement over its predecessor.

Note: 1 MiB = 1024 kilobytes, 1 MB = 1000 kilobytes